Imagine having to leave your home, your friends, even your husband out of fear of something you cannot see, smell or touch. That's the story of so many mothers who evacuated Fukushima after a tsunami tore into their city's nuclear power plant.
Two of them described their journey to ABC News last week in New York.
Time will tell if they are the lucky ones.
Evacuating From Fukushima
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Japan. Thirty minutes later a massive tsunami flattened the Northern Tohoku region, killing nearly 20,000 men, women and children who couldn't run from the path of the oncoming wave. A tsunami alert had gone out, but no one expected the waves to be so huge.
Minutes after the first quake, myriad aftershocks riddled the entire country as fires sprang up in the oil containment centers of Chiba. The Sendai Airport went underwater, and people struggled to find their loved ones. The situation gravely worsened as news of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant sent fear across the globe that still reverberates today.
Chiaki Tomitsuka lived in Fukushima Prefecture, 36 miles from the nuclear plant. She had heard about the horrors of Chernobyl, and even though the amount of radioactive material released in Fukushima was much lower than that nuclear disaster, Tomitsuka feared for the health of her 10-year-old son. She and her husband quickly tried to come up with a plan to evacuate, but it wasn't so easy.
"Several days after the accident, many of my friends started evacuating the area," said Tomitsuka. "But our family could not leave, because the trains had been halted due to the continuing quakes, and we didn't have enough gasoline for our car."
Gasoline become a rare commodity. People lined up at dawn for hours to wait for fuel to be delivered to gas stations, only to find that gas had run out, leaving many to try their luck again the following day.
For Tomitsuka, it was not until March 23, 11 days after the explosion at the nuclear plant, that she and her son, Yuri, could get enough gas in their car to evacuate to Kanagawa Prefecture, where her parents lived. Tomitsuka has since moved with her son into a temporary public housing facility in Yokohama, separated from her husband who stayed behind in Fukushima to work.
"It's sad that I can't see my father often," her son, Yuri, admitted. "But I believe it was a good decision to evacuate, because I don't want to be ill in the future. I want to live a long time and relieve my parents of anxiety."
Her housing is guaranteed only till next year, and Tomitsuka does not want to think about what will happen when her term is up.
"I can't think about that right now," she confided. "I can barely deal with the current realities. If I began thinking about that, I would slip into a deeper depression."
Tomitsuka's only regret is that she was not able to say her goodbyes to her friends, neighbors and teachers at her son's school before evacuating. Despite mixed emotions of fear and guilt, she knows she made the right decision to leave. She is aware that not everyone had the means to do so.
The Evacuation Zone: Is It Wide Enough?
Fukushima, once an area rich with lush cherry blossom trees and beautiful landscapes, has become synonymous with the dangers of radiation. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant released 168 times the amount of radiation that was released by the atomic blast on Hiroshima in 1945, and was categorized as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale, the highest level possible.
The Japanese government created a 12-mile "exclusion zone," and 80,000 people were told to evacuate. Cities within that radius have become ghost towns frozen in time: Traffic lights flash above empty streets, signaling to no one; a basket of clothes at the laundromat remain half folded. There are no signs of life.
Those who evacuated might not be able to return home for decades. Families living right outside the evacuation zone fear the government's insistence that their area is safe is not altogether sincere. They know radiation levels have dropped, but say they just don't know what's safe anymore.
Without government funding or compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, which operates the Fukushima plant, the families say they cannot leave.
Young families worry their children are being exposed to high levels of radiation, but loans and mortgages on their homes have tied them down. They cannot sell their homes, nor can they uproot themselves to a new place without the promise of a job.
Those who were forced to evacuate receive monthly monetary compensation from Tepco. But for volunary evacuees living just outside the exclusion zone, there is little restitution. Tepco will pay a one-time fee of 400,000 yen (about $4,000) for children and expectant mothers, and 80,000 yen (about $800) for other adults.
A Year Later
Last Wednesday, Chiaki Tomitsuka and her son, Yuri, Yoshiko Fukagawa and her son, Kaisei - evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture in Japan - spoke about their health concerns at a forum sponsored by Human Rights Now (a nongovernmental organization based in Tokyo), that was held in conjunction with the 56th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Fukagawa lived in Koriyama City in Fukushima Prefecture when the nuclear reactor exploded. Like Tomitsuka, she voluntarily evacuated with her two young children, ages 4 and 7, and in June 2011, with support from other mothers, she founded a grassroots organization called Evacuated Mothers With Children From Fukushima. It provides a safe haven where young mothers can express their fears about the possible dangers still facing their children, and organizes rallies and sit-ins call attention to the hazards of radiation and to protest against nuclear power plants.
Asked whether there were any mementos that would remind her of home before the nuclear disaster, Fukagawa replied, "After experiencing such a powerful quake and seeing everything being washed away, any shred of material desire I had has been washed away as well. I am just thankful to have the possession called life."
Tomitsuka and Fukagawa, along with their children, are speaking out as a reminder that the fallout from Fukushima is still affecting many lives.
"Even though it has been a year since the Fukushima Nuclear Plant explosion," says Tomitsuka. "It is not over. Please do not forget us."