Update on Emergency Temporary Housing for the Tohoku Region of Japan

Posted by Jim Ivanoff
May 17th, 2011


While there seems to be fewer and fewer stories these days on CNN about Japan’s triple disaster, life is still far from returning to normal for the people in the hardest hit region of Tohoku. Recently I was able to make a trip to this area with my colleagues from COFI Japan.

By visiting this area we were able to fully appreciate the fact that it was the tsunami that caused most of the devastation. Although there was some damage to buildings and roads in central Sendai, as soon as we neared the coast we were astonished by the aftermath of the tsunami. Moving on to the communities to the north such as Ishinomaki, Minamisanrikucho, and Kesennuma left us speechless.

I can vividly remember driving along a winding mountain road and noticing some garbage off to the sides. This made us realize that the tsunami had reached this area. Not thinking about it much more, we came around a bend where the mountain pass opened up quickly into a wide valley leading to the ocean. All we saw were mountains of rubble where apparently one of Minamisanrikucho’s communities existed before 3/11. My feelings at that moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.

From there we moved on to Kesennuma to visit a temporary housing construction site. The units were being built on a school’s sports field. In just over three weeks, 120 units were to be built using 2×4 construction. All of the panels for this project were being built at plants nearby using Canadian dimension lumber and OSB. This in addition to the fact that that there 70-100 tradespeople on site at any given time working 14-16 hours per day was allowing the builder to keep this schedule. However, the high volume of traffic in the area bringing in supplies meant that a trip between the site and panel plant that would normally take just two hours was taking 4 to 5. Also, the size of trucks they could use was being limited by downed power lines nearby further decreasing efficiencies. As a result, drivers were only getting 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. The person in charge of the site felt that once more temporary housing construction got underway, that these issues in addition to a shortage of tradespeople would slow building schedules.

However, the biggest hurdle to quickly building the required 72,000 housing units is the lack of suitable public land. All of the companies that we visited and were involved with temporary housing projects told us that they had materials and people ready to go, but were waiting for local governments to assign them job sites. The problem is the result of a government ban from rebuilding on land affected by the tsunami combined with the mountainous topography of this area. Another requirement specified by the government is that the sites be within 300m of water and power lines to make hooking up to the existing infrastructure possible. Many of the homeless people are also demanding that the units be built close to their destroyed homes as most have lost their vehicles and thus cannot travel long distances for work or school. All this is limiting the availability of land for the temporary housing units and therefore slowing down reconstruction efforts. In some areas the government is looking at topping off/flattening hilltops to create news space.

The land issue is also affecting the program to import pre-fabricated units. MLIT has told us that they have compiled their list of overseas suppliers who met the requirements in their request for proposals. This list was then submitted to the prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi. According to a press release from MLIT, they received 322 proposals of which 22 were from Canada (http://www.mlit.go.jp/en/jutakukentiku/house04_hh_000001.html).

While we expected that the prefectures would start contacting suppliers last week to discuss the proposals, it seems that the land shortage is both tying up prefectural staff and for the moment decreasing the urgency to import units (there is no point to import units when they don’t have anywhere to put them). We heard that Iwate, which required only a small number of units, has contracted with one overseas supplier and that will likely be sufficient to meet their needs.

As for the other two prefectures, I am currently working with the Canadian Embassy to get detailed clarification on where they are in terms of looking at the proposals and how they expect to move forward. I hope to have more a better understanding of the situation by the end of the week.





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