Isolated Japanese island tries to fend for itself after tsunami

OSHIMA, Japan Fri Mar 25, 2011 1:05pm EDT

OSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Susumu Sugawara steers his boat "Himawari" past burned-out ships and through flotsam to the small island of Oshima, providing residents with their only link to the outside world, two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan. The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami killed more than 10,000 people and about 17,500 are missing. With the cost of damage estimated at $300 billion, it is the world's costliest natural disaster. Two weeks on, residents beset with grief and shock in communities along the coast are showing signs of picking up the pieces of their lives. But for tiny communities on outlying islands such as Oshima, the job is going to be that much harder, largely because, with many ferries and other boats smashed by the tsunami, the islands are more isolated than ever. Oshima's regular ferries were lost in the disaster so Sugawara, 69, has stepped in to help. He transported about 60 people, and numerous bundles of food and clothing between the island and the city of Kesennuma on Friday. "Without this boat, people on the island can't go anywhere," he said. "My house is still damaged ... but unless I do this, people on the island wouldn't know what to do." Oshima, famous for its beautiful beaches and fishing industry, used to be home to about 3,200 people. The tsunami killed at least 31 people of them. No one is quite sure how many people might be missing. The waves demolished guest houses and fishing sheds on the coast, sparked a forest fire, and destroyed more than a quarter of the island's 1,121 houses.

"NOT GETTING MUCH" It is only a 25 minute boat ride to Kesennuma city, but many islanders feel abandoned. "There is no real transportation for us, so the island is not getting much of anything," said Yuji Shirahata, who heads the island's disaster relief team. "We can't clean up rubble because we no longer have heavy equipment." Food and supplies have been are gradually arriving but the island has no running water or electricity. "Our tourism and fishing industries were picking before the quake hit," said Shirahata. "Now, they are completely destroyed. I am worried that they will never recover."

Like many other towns hit hard by the tsunami, Oshima has a rapidly aging population, with many of the island's young people having moved away to work in cities.

"There aren't many young people in Oshima, many old people live here. It will be hard to reconstruct," said Toshifumi Shirahata, 59, who travelled out to the island to see his mother and wife for the first time since the disaster. At the island's elementary school, people left homeless have found a place to stay. A school clock had stopped at 2:46 p.m., the time the quake hit. At first, about 500 people slept at the school, sharing thin blankets against the late winter chill.

There are still 150 people sheltering there, sleeping side-by-side on the floor. For the first few days after the disaster, survivors had to drink water from a school swimming pool. Now, they are getting it from a stream. "I lost everything and I don't know what's going on any more," said Toshifumi Shirahata's mother, Ikuno, 85, who is staying at the school.

"But I'm happy now," she said, after being reunited with her son.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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