RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan – One month after a devastating tsunami flattened their homes, some families moved into temporary housing, while Japan’s prime minister promised Sunday to help fishermen along the devastated coast get back to their boats.

Rows of 36 boxy gray houses line a junior high school parking lot in this port city pulverized by the March 11 wave, and, after a lottery, the first few lucky families moved in this weekend.

Each unit is just 320 square feet, but replete with modern comforts such as a television, refrigerator, microwave and washing machine — a welcome upgrade for the homeless, many of whom have slept on the floors of school gyms for a month.

That’s just one house for every 50 applicants.

“It’s a mystery how we were lucky enough to be chosen. It’s like a dream,” said Sakai Sasaki, 80, who had been living with relatives.

The city hopes to complete 400 units in eight different locations by mid-May, although that will still cover only about one-quarter of the families in need. Other areas have similar plans, but Rikuzentakata’s units are the first to be completed.

“When you think of the feelings of the evacuees, we want to build them even a day faster, or make just one unit more,” said Saeki Suga, an official in charge of the housing plan for the city.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it generated flattened communities along hundreds of miles of coastline, and is thought to have killed more than 25,000 people.

Fishermen have borne a particularly heavy burden because many boats and piers were washed away. On top of that, radiation spewing from a nuclear plant disabled by the crushing wave has contaminated seafood.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited Ishinomaki and promised to support the coastal city, where the fishing industry accounts for 40 percent of the economy.

“The government will do its utmost to help you,” Kan told local people gathered near the sea. “We will support you so that you can resume fishing.”

Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama told him the government needs to quickly build temporary homes for the 17,000 city residents who lost theirs and are living in shelters.

The last time Kan visited tsunami-hit towns, there was criticism that his government was distracted from the suffering of coastal communities by the nuclear crisis, which has heaped more misery on the region.

Ahead of today’s one-month anniversary, nuclear safety official Hidehiko Nishiyama apologized for the worry and inconvenience caused by the radiation spilling from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

“We’ve done all we could to come this far,” Nishiyama said. “Unfortunately, we still cannot give any timeline for when we can move on to the next phase, but we are hoping to achieve a sustainable cooling system, contain radiation and bring the situation under control as soon as possible.”

He added, however, that it would be several months before normal cooling systems could be restored.

Contamination in water pooling around the complex has slowed efforts to stabilize the reactors, emitting so much radiation in some places that workers can get in only for short periods of time, if at all.

In a move that prompted some criticism from neighboring countries, engineers decided earlier this month to deliberately pump less-contaminated water into the ocean from a storage facility to free up space for more highly radioactive water. They are also pumping out water from drains to keep it from backing up. The pumping was due to end Sunday.

Now that removal of the contaminated water is under way, officials are starting to consider options for restoring the cooling systems vital for preventing further reactor damage. But they won’t know what will work best until the water is out of the way and they can see which parts are usable and which have been destroyed.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. reiterated Sunday that it is not considering entombing the hot reactors in concrete, as was done at Chernobyl in 1986 when a reactor fire burned out of control. “We are not opting for entombment at the moment,” spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said.

 


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