ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Tsunami survivors in Ishinomaki try to avoid the Kitakamikawa River after dark.

Some believe the river is haunted by the spirits of those who perished when the great wave crashed over its banks, destroying 29,000 homes and drowning almost 4,000 of the fishing town’s 160,000 inhabitants.

“You can hear voices there at night,” said Utsumi Toyoko, 86, whose home was destroyed March 11 last year after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake caused a massive tsunami that slammed Japan’s eastern coast. The official death toll is 15,854, with 3,271 still listed as missing.

Toyoko and the other survivors faced months of hardship. At first, many survived on the top floors of their homes — without heat, electricity or running water — subsisting on relief supplies provided by Japanese and U.S. military personnel. Later, they moved to schools and community centers that served as emergency shelter.

Others fled to parts of Japan that had escaped the tsunami’s wrath.

Now, a year after the disaster, fresh paint and hasty repairs have returned the main road into town — once cluttered with broken cars, mud and debris — to a semblance of normalcy. Many local factories and business are again open. But the scars left by the tsunami in some places — where stone foundations are all that is left of neighborhoods that were once home to thousands — might take a century to heal.

Many of the Ishinomaki evacuees are packed into more than 7,000 temporary houses until permanent homes and apartments can be built.

Conditions are cramped in the temporary home that Toyoko shares with two daughters and a son-in-law. The entrance is crowded with pots and pans and, in the main room, blankets, clothing, food and other possessions are stacked to the ceiling. Outside, snow blankets what’s left of Toyoko’s Watanoha neighborhood.

Her family members, whose Ramen noodle shop was swept away, survive with government assistance and they don’t know whether or when they will be able to restart their business or move to a permanent home.

For now, Toyoko is happy just to be warm and well-fed.

“I feel safe now,” she said.

Military relief efforts

Japanese and U.S. military personnel played a prominent role in relief efforts in Ishinomaki in the days and weeks after the tsunami.

Ishinomaki temporary housing resident Tokai Ryoko, 81, who ran up a hill as the torrent ripped through her home last year, said she and other locals were impressed by the hard work of U.S. and Japanese troops who cleared rubble from a local school. She has memories of traveling on a hovercraft with 100 evacuees to a Japanese Self-Defense Force ship to take showers and do laundry.

“Before the disaster, we didn’t think much of the Japanese military,” she said. “They were known for bad behavior and getting arrested and getting in fights.”

Now locals feel grateful to the soldiers and foreign volunteers who helped them, she said.

Another Ishinomaki temporary housing resident, Fujita Toshihiko, 48, saw his mother and aunt swept away by the tsunami. He helped U.S. troops deliver water in his Watanoha neighborhood and later coordinated groups of volunteers who came there to help clear debris.

Overall, Toshihiko said, he’s not happy with the efforts of local authorities in the past year.

“We locals and volunteers have cleaned up this neighborhood, not the government,” he said, adding that he believes local officials should do more to support survivors, many of whom are getting by on savings or pensions.

He’s also disappointed that not enough has been done to restart damaged fish factories in Ishinomaki, with business owners bickering over whether to raise the level of land in an effort to protect against a future tsunami, he said.

Fishing industry takes direct hit

The fishing industry — the most important employer in towns such as Ishinomaki — bore the brunt of the tsunami.

In Miyagi prefecture, where U.S. forces concentrated their tsunami relief efforts, officials estimated that 12,000 out of 13,000 registered fishing vessels, all of the region’s fish farms and its 142 ports were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami, with at least 440 fishermen listed as dead or missing. The damage was estimated at 400 billion yen, or $5 billion.

The three fishing boats owned by Takashi Sugihara, 39, survived the tsunami. He’s back fishing for Anago — a nocturnal, eel-like fish — and harvesting shellfish in Matsushima Bay, an idyllic inlet just south of Ishinomaki that’s also a popular tourist destination.

Sugihara, who took over a family fishing business 25 years ago, said about half of the oyster beds in the bay were destroyed but young oysters survived, meaning the harvest will be back to normal levels by next year.

“Other parts of the coast will take twice as long to recover,” he said.

Since the disaster, local fishermen have worked together to share the daily catch, such as the shellfish harvest, said Sugihara, who expects it could be decades before fishermen can operate independently. Though regular testing of the fish in the area has not shown elevated radiation levels, people fear contamination from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, he said, pointing to empty tables in the fish market where he sells his catch.

‘Things are improving’

Back in Ishinomaki, smoke is billowing from factory chimneys near the port.

Hiroko Shoji, 61, runs a factory supply warehouse in an industrial part of Ishinomaki with her husband, Masahiro, 65. In the days after the disaster, Stars and Stripes wrote about the couple, who built a makeshift bridge over fetid floodwater to reach the warehouse, which they had to enter by climbing a ladder, walking across a roof and crawling through a window.

Now a steady stream of cars and trucks passes by the warehouse, where the couple work with 10 employees to supply tools to factories that are busy repairing tsunami damage. The couple recently employed two new workers under the city’s plan to encourage businesses to hire young locals and keep them in town.

One of them, Tsuchiya Manami, 29, was in the hospital after giving birth to her second daughter when the tsunami struck. Her home was destroyed and now she lives in an apartment provided by the city. Her husband works for a pharmaceutical wholesaler.

Despite all that she’s been through and the challenges to come, Manami is optimistic.

“It’s been a year and things are improving,” she said. “It will get back to normal eventually.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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