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Baltimorean's dreams now Kobe rubble

ROKKO ISLAND, JAPAN — ROKKO ISLAND, Japan -- Not too many days ago, Errol Phillips was nurturing a four-year comeback from disaster as a Baltimore home builder by working on ambitious plans to bring American businesses to this new man-made island attached to booming, westernized Kobe.

Then came the great earthquake of 1995. Now Mr. Phillips, 52, is the last American on the island, temporarily residing on a couch in a business center at the bottom of an elegant postmodern skyscraper that probably sustained structural damage.

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During the day he is joined by perhaps a quarter of the usual 100-person staff of his main client, a property management firm named Planners International Ltd., heavily involved in the development of Rokko Island

His most recent full meal came more than a week ago; he expects it will be a month before there is another. Food is limited to a miraculous daily appearance at the office of rice, fruit and snacks. "Where it comes from, I don't know," he said.

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All 200 apartments on the upper floors of the building have been abandoned. Many were homes for non-Japanese Procter & Gamble employees who were evacuated to the United States.

"Those people were here just because of an assignment," said Mr. Phillips. "I'm still here because I live here. I do not think about going back to the United States."

Behind his determination is a simple reality for the Baltimore native that things couldn't get much worse for him than they were when he left his hometown. A graduate of City College and Loyola College, he served in the military, worked at Gilman School as an administrator for a while and then did other work that culminated in a shift to real estate development in 1988. A strong beginning abruptly ended in 1990 when the real estate market crashed. "I lost everything," he said.

A friend inspired him to go to Japan.

At first he worked as a language teacher, and then formed his own company. Soon he found his way to Rokko Island.

Procter & Gamble was already here, finishing a huge headquarters in 1993 that served as a billboard for other global companies. Popular international schools for the children of expatriates followed. Newly built transportation links included rail connections to major nearby Japanese cities and a multibillion-dollar international airport. Unlike anywhere else in this congested country, there was surplus space.

A rare door in Japan had opened. Slowly, Mr. Phillips had developed crucial relationships with a few key Japanese clients involved in real estate. Japanese money would finance the establishment of U.S. businesses that could provide viable products for the domestic market.

One of the potential projects was to lure U.S. software and system design companies to Japan to provide programs for Japanese companies. Although Japan is superb at manufacturing computers, it is rare to find them used here. He also hoped to create a sample house for American building products.

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"The buds had been planted and cultivated," he said. "It was time for them to flower."

But last Tuesday, Mr. Phillips' economic garden was destroyed in the earthquake that reduced sections of Kobe into charred rubble and turned Rokko Island into a ghost town.

"We had a lot of plans to do things," he said. "I guess they are on hold."

Getting to the island is difficult. Nearby roads are blocked or damaged. A section of an overhead tram, providing the main link to the mainland, has collapsed. The time frame for repairs, initially projected to take six months, has been extended indefinitely.

The island lacks gas and running water. Small electric heaters ward off the damp, freezing winter in the inhabited areas of Mr. Phillip's building. Water from a swimming pool in an abandoned health club downstairs is warmed in rice cookers for shaving, and scooped out in buckets for flushing toilets. Showers aren't feasible.

The night before the quake, Mr. Phillips was at his home in Ashiya, a small city just outside of Kobe, a few minutes by car from Rokko Island. Before going to bed he played the only type of golf a non-millionaire here can afford -- on a computer.

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As did millions of others in the surrounding area, he awoke early Tuesday morning to a crash. "I thought it might be an explosion," he said. "I didn't realize how beyond my little world it was."

There was widespread devastation. Only 20 feet from his house, another home had collapsed. "I can't imagine anything survived that," he said.

Getting on his scooter, he took a ride around his neighborhood. He saw Japanese businessmen in suits headed to work even though one of the greatest calamities of the century had hit their region. "There were crushed houses, fires, and streets were blocked," he recalled, "but they only didn't make it [to their offices] because the rail station was closed."

At home he had nothing to eat, but a neighbor came by with a small ham, and that was good for one day. Ice cream left at the bottom of a freezer in a largely emptied grocery store was enough for another day.

"I was never not going to survive," he said. "At worst, there were stores closed with food in them. If it got bad, I'd break in."

Despite the massive destruction of the quake, the social fabric around him continued to hold up. "The orderliness of it all is unbelievable," he said. "It's exciting to see people not kill each other. Maybe they are all in shock."

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On Wednesday, the day after the quake, his phone line began to work intermittently and he spoke to the office. He heard it had plenty of food and bottled water. And, of course, there was work to do. When an access route from Ashiya to Rokko Island opened up the next day, he went over.

Trying to get anything done at the office has been almost impossible. Throughout Japan everyone is focused on the cleanup, and nowhere more so than in Kobe itself.

Looking beyond the present to the near future, many ideas have ceased to be relevant. Kobe isn't seeking new people or businesses at the moment. Instead the Kobe region now is desperately trying to provide shelter and minimal services for those who are already here. Restoration is now commonly forecast to take years.

That, of course, raises other business possibilities. There are abundant reasons to now emphasize construction and building supply operations far beyond the small sample house of materials and products Mr. Phillips initially had planned to develop.

Imported prefabricated structures and modular homes all are suddenly viable.

There are reasons, though, not to push too hard, or too fast.

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"In America, the first business meeting with an outsider would probably take place just after we heard the rumbling" of the earthquake, Mr. Phillips said. "In Japan you don't want to appear to be taking advantage of the situation."


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