Month After Quake, Japan Homeless Move into Temporary Housing

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RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan-- One month after a devastating tsunami flattened their homes, some families took a step toward normalcy and 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 lucky few families moved in this weekend. Each unit is just 320 square feet (30 square meters), but replete with modern comforts like 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 only cover 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 (kilometers) 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, dressed in blue work clothes, 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 Monday'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," said Nishiyama. "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 set 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," said spokesman Junichi Matsumoto. "We see that the Unit 1-4 reactors are relatively stabilized, judging from the reactor temperature and water level, while we are short of calling them stable."

Engineers have struggled to get data from the reactors because they don't have normal access to them. On Sunday, a tiny remote-controlled drone aircraft from Honeywell did its first flight around the compound. Eventually, the gadget may be able to provide more specific information on radiation and temperatures in areas that have been off-limits to workers.

The crisis has sparked several anti-nuclear protests, but one of the largest happened Sunday in a Tokyo neighborhood where many students live. Thousands of people carrying "No nukes" signs gathered for a rally and then marched through the streets chanting and beating drums. Elsewhere in the capital, about 140 miles (220 kilometers) southwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi, protesters demanding the closure of a different plant chanted "No more Fukushima" as they marched through government headquarters and past the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Sunday also saw Japanese and U.S. troops fan out along the coast for another all-out search for bodies by land, air and sea.

Television news showed them using heavy equipment to lift a boat washed inland by the tsunami so they could search a crushed car underneath. No one was inside.

Just 13,000 deaths have been confirmed so far, and many bodies have likely washed out to sea and will never be found.

During his visit to the tsunami zone, Kan thanked U.S. troops for their efforts.

A similar three-day search with even more troops a week ago found only about 70 bodies, underscoring the difficulties of locating victims in the ocean and the debris along the coast. Sunday's search, which was to last only one day, turned up 66.

"I sincerely thank you for your generous assistance you have given to us since the earthquake," said the prime minister, whose government has had disagreements with Washington on the relocation of an American base in Japan.

The assistance "strengthens relations between Japan and the United States. I will never forget your kindness for the rest of my life," said Kan, in comments carried by Kyodo News agency.