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Mayor puts personal tragedy aside to rebuild Japanese city

By Kyung Lah, CNN
March 8, 2012 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
  • Mayor of city in Iwate prefecture lost wife in 2011 tsunami
  • Personal struggle to raise his sons and rebuild the city of Rikuzentakata
  • Hopes that residents of city will stay, although 1,000 have left

(CNN) -- Futoshi Toba's wife was killed by last year's tsunami but as a father of two and mayor of Rikuzentakata in Japan's Iwate Prefecture he has little time to grieve.

Toba's daily routine starts by driving his two sons -- 13-year-old Taiga and 11-year-old Kanato -- to their elementary and junior high schools; two structures that were not affected by the tsunami and the reason they were not victims of the disaster. Fortunately for Toba the route doesn't take him past his old house where his wife perished.

He says he doesn't like to see it and be reminded of his loss.

Like many overstretched single parents, Toba sees his shortcomings before his successes.

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"To be honest, I haven't done enough for my boys as a father," he says, the weariness of the year weighing on the 47-year-old's face. "But I try to be with them when I have time."

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As Mayor of Rikuzentakata, time is in short supply for Toba. The work to rebuild the town's entire downtown that destroyed by the tsunami is almost overwhelming. The cost of the damage is estimated at $1.6 billion.

Much of the rubble has been cleared away but the shells of many of the larger structures still stand. The mayor has laid out an eight year reconstruction plan and recently secured funding from the Japanese government.

The first three years are dedicated to mapping out the infrastructure and design of a new city, which includes moving its center to higher ground.

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Toba spends most of his days fielding questions and demands from residents, while prioritizing the endless needs of a city on the mend. He's also an advocate for the city, urging the remaining 22,000 residents to stay through the long rebuilding process. More than 1,000 people haven't heeded his call and have abandoned the city.

Fumiko Suzuki is one resident who is sticking it out in Rikuzentakata. A nurse at a local hospital destroyed by the tsunami, she was in shock immediately after the disaster and recounted how she had to leave bedridden patients to drown in their hospital beds.

"The patients couldn't walk. I looked out and the wave was as high as the fourth floor window," she said when interviewed soon after the tragedy.

"'I'm sorry,' I told the patient, and I ran upstairs. It is the biggest regret I have."

Suzuki was set to retire this year but has continued to work in a temporary building that is the city's hospital. She lost her home and relatives in the disaster and sees little joy in giving up what's left in her life.

"One year isn't enough to heal," she says. "My job is to be with people and share their pain." Suzuki says without the survivors' personal sacrifice and determination to stay and rebuild, the town will disappear.

Mayor Toba is a potent symbol of that personal sacrifice. He doesn't want to be seen as a brave man and uses his work as an escape from his terrible sorrow.

"My job as mayor takes precedence to being a father right now. I don't have time to be alone. I don't have time to feel sad or cry, which may mentally help me survive right now.

"It is hard for me to live without the person who was supposed to always be with me. I feel her telling me to work hard for this town. Someday soon my sons will look at this town and understand why their father wasn't around more."

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