Returning To The Disaster Zone

Emergency evacuation is the most logistically challenging aspect of relocation. It’s ever present in the news or movies: disease, war, famine, natural disaster and, in Hollywood, alien/zombie invasions all lead to mass evacuation. But when the war is over, or the storm has passed, what happens to the people who go back?

The most recent returners to the disaster zone are the residents of the Miyakoji district in Tamura city, less that 20km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor plant. In the aftermath of the nuclear crisis in 2011, around 80,000 people were evacuated from a 20km radius. They were forced to abandon the majority of their now contaminated belongings and relocate. Some only moved a short distance, while others began a new life in the Tokyo suburbs. For families who had lived in the areas surrounding the reactor for generations, relocating was painful. Yutaro Aoki, a resident overseeing the city’s recovery, told the Associated Press news agency, “People want to go back and lead proper lives, a kind of life where they can feel their feet are on the ground.”

The key question when returning to a previous disaster zone is ‘is it safe?’ Will the war continue? Has the disease been eradicated? In the case of Fukushima, is it still too irradiated? The 20km evacuation zone is currently divided into 3 areas: pink, yellow and green. The pink areas are deemed too dangerous, and remain enclosed by a barricade. The yellow areas limit visits to a few hours. The green areas are ‘in preparation to lift evacuation orders’, and are being decontaminated. All visits within the evacuation zone must be made while wearing full protective gear and a dosimeter. Many previous inhabitants remain dubious about the decontamination effort, unsurprisingly given that the green zones have radiation exposure of around 20 millisieverts per year, the equivalent of 2000 chest x-rays. Before the disaster, 1 millisievert per year was considered the safe level. In the yellow zone, this is reached in only a matter of hours. Yet, many still want to return – after all, their relocation was not by choice. This is home.

Moving back to Fukushima isn’t a physical operation. Living in limbo for the past 3 years, the majority of families do not have a vast amount of personal effects to take with them. It does however, remain an emotional one. The residents will still require a vast amount of relocation support. After all, in an area which is barely populated, finding schools, jobs and even shops will all be difficult. Kimiko Koyama, another resident, told the BBC that “There are no jobs. It’s inconvenient and young people are scared of radiation.” Health also becomes an issue. All inhabitants need to be monitored to make sure the radiation doesn’t damage their health in any way.

While returning to the disaster zone may not be a usual relocation, anyone going back home will still require the same level of support, if not more.

Posted in categories: