(MINAMISOMA, Japan) — A desperate plea for help put Katsunobu Sakurai on the digital map.
Weeks after a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima Daichi Power Plant last March, Sakurai sat in an empty conference room at city hall, put on his official beige jacket, looked into a small camcorder and unloaded.
“There are few supplies coming in,” he said.
“The lack of information from Tokyo Electric and the government has left us isolated.”
“I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma city, to help us.”
The 11-minute recording posted on YouTube went viral instantly. Calls of support poured in from all over the world, including the U.S. Hundreds of boxes of food and relief supplies followed.
One year later, Sakurai keeps reminders of that goodwill in the same room. A framed photo taken with U.S. Ambassador John Roos sits on the shelf. A mascot doll from a district in Tokyo that lent support stands next to it. Above the entrance, a large banner from a non-profit group in western Japan reads, “Dream, Inspiration, courage and hope. Let’s go Minamisoma.”
“March 2011 felt like an eternity,” Sakurai says. “We had no information, our supplies were cut off, our economy shut down.”
More than half of Minamisoma’s 75,000 residents fled in the days following March 11, after the government ordered an evacuation of the 12-mile area around the nuclear plant.
On the YouTube recording, Sakurai said just 20,000 people were left behind.
Evacuees have returned as radiation levels dropped and decontamination efforts picked up, but large chunks of the city still resemble a ghost town. The Kodaka district, home to about 13,000 people, remains inside the nuclear exclusion zone. Police cars and red flashing lights act as a nuclear divide in the Haramachi district, where a majority of Minamisoma’s residents lived.
Downtown businesses have sprung back. All but four of the city’s schools are back open now. But with a third of the city still off limits because of radiation concerns, Sakurai doesn’t expect many more to return.
“Maybe 2,000 more,” he says. “It will never be the same.”
Yoshiaki Yokota echoes the grim outlook.
His restaurant sits on the edge of the zone. Most of his business comes from nuclear workers involved with the cleanup effort.
“My customers go inside there, and risk their lives every day,” Yokota says, pointing to police cars that mark the entrance to the zone outside his door. “It wouldn’t be right to shut down my business.”
Staying open has come at a cost. Business is down two thirds. Since Yokota reopened his doors last April, he’s taken a $36,000 hit.
Radiation concerns have also added to financial woes. The restaurant owner ships in produce from outside the Fukushima region because he doesn’t think locally grown food is safe.
He tests the tap water for traces of cesium, though excessive levels haven’t been detected so far. Yokota says he’s prepared to shut down the business his father started 47 years ago if that changes.
Luring young families back to Minamisoma will be key to its survival. Last summer, Sakurai teamed up with the University of Tokyo’s Radioisotope Center for a multimillion dollar decontamination effort that largely relied on city employees to clean up schools and nurseries. They pressure-washed playgrounds and scrubbed classrooms until radiation levels started to drop.
Sakurai is quick to point out Tokyo didn’t finalize plans for decontamination until two months after Minamisoma completed the first phase of its clean-up.
The second phase will take much longer.
Crews must now wash down every street, the rooftops of every home, the walls of contaminated buildings. Excavators will be hauled in to dig out radiated top soil from parks and large fields.
The process is expected to take at least two years, but Yoshiaki Yokota, with Minamisoma’s decontamination planning department, says crews can’t begin the work until they secure a waste disposal site.
“We can’t remove the waste without a place to store it,” Yokota says, adding nobody wants nuclear waste in their neighborhood. “We’ve asked communities for their understanding, but getting support has been difficult.”
For Sakurai, it means a delayed homecoming.
His house is within 12 miles of the plant and remains off limits. In the last year, he has only returned for three short visits to gather his belongings.
Later this month, the government will review the zoning of evacuation areas based on the latest radiation levels. Sakurai is hopeful evacuation orders for larger parts of Minamisoma will be lifted after that.
He is also aware that a return home won’t necessarily mean reclaiming the life he had.
“Our lives have changed so much,” he says. “I can’t recall what it was like before March 11.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Alanna Petroff, CNN
Ivana Kottasova, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN