Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Koji Ueda

Deep waters

Six months after one of the world's costliest disasters, Japanese residents strive to overcome flood damage, quake devastation, and sorrow upon sorrow

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

TOHOKU, Japan-When Shougi and Etsu Taki evacuated their home after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan on March 11, they grabbed enough supplies to last through dinner: a biscuit, an orange, a knife, and a bottle of water.

Since the massive quake hadn't seriously damaged their coastal home in Kamaishi, the retired couple thought they'd return by nightfall. When they stepped outside, Mr. Taki says they thought differently: "People were screaming: 'A tsunami is coming!'"

The couple clambered up a steep hill on foot, resisting a fate like Lot's wife by refusing to look back. Taki says they heard the horrifying torrent of seawater barreling through town before they finally saw the tsunami from their hilltop perch: "It was like a great, black wall."

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Scores of residents in Kamaishi-and dozens of other coastal towns-didn't survive the wall of water: The quake and tsunami left more than 19,000 dead or missing across northeastern Japan in the worst disaster to strike the country since World War II.

The overwhelming calamity-that included a tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant spewing deadly levels of radiation-displaced nearly a half million residents. When Taki reached his home nearly three weeks after the disaster, he says: "Everything was gone. There were just piles of wood."

Now six months after the disaster, Taki and his wife-like thousands of others-are trying to chart their future. In August they sat in folding chairs on a gravel lot in a temporary housing community a few miles north of Kamaishi's obliterated port. An electronic scoreboard flanks the tight rows of 120 prefabricated units situated on a plowed-over baseball field. It's one of hundreds of sites the Japanese government has built to hold more than 50,000 temporary units for tsunami victims across the northeastern region, known as Tohoku. Survivors may live in them for two years.

Taki, like many residents in temporary units, wonders if two years will be long enough. While the Japanese government has made Herculean progress in moving huge amounts of the 27 million tons of debris across the three hardest-hit prefectures, one effort remains largely untouched more than six months after the disaster: reconstruction.

Indeed, handfuls of storefronts along the streets running closest to Kamaishi's port sit gutted, vacant, with bare framing exposed. At the devastated port, it's difficult to imagine what once stood along the water's edge: Mountainous piles of carefully crushed debris sit next to plot after plot of empty slabs-with no signs of rebuilding.

Though a steel factory has restarted production, the biggest attraction in town is a bizarre monument to the tsunami's power: a 4,724-ton, blue and red freighter wrenched onto shore by the water's force. Local residents drive around the colossal ship's bow-wedged into the wharf's wall-and onlookers tromp through the chaos, snapping shots of the ship named Asia Symphony.

A few miles away, tsunami victims like Taki feel far less noticed. With national-and international-attention more riveted on radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the political turmoil following the ouster of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in August, the daily plight of these families often recedes to the background.

Their dilemma is complex: Many residents in temporary housing don't know if they'll be able to rebuild on land swamped by the tsunami. Though the Japanese government has approved some $78 billion for reconstruction efforts across the region, government officials haven't determined which swaths of land remain habitable. Since most homeowners didn't have tsunami insurance, they likely won't recoup most of their losses, even if they have permission to rebuild.

Taki and his wife have another dilemma: Like many in the Tohoku region, the couple is growing elderly. Re-entering the workforce isn't realistic, and the couple isn't sure how much their children will be able to help. Many wonder: How even in two years will they start over?

From a quiet plot of land near his prefab home, Taki is quick to say he's grateful for the government's help, but he also echoes the sentiment of many tsunami survivors: "We feel forgotten."

But for those visiting tsunami zones, the sights are unforgettable. In the once bustling port of Ishinomaki, steaming piles of crushed rubble reach several stories high.

In Miyagi Prefecture alone, government officials estimate the tsunami's destruction created the equivalent of 23 years of waste in one day. That debris includes the remains of miles of homes swallowed by the giant wave. Farther inland, miles of homes remain on slabs, but ravaged by the tsunami's waters.

In Rikuzentakata, the only buildings remaining include an empty hotel and the gutted shell of City Hall. On a barrier island next to the port, a lone pine tree stands straight and tall, an eerie reminder of what was lost: It's the only tree remaining on a stretch of seashore that held 70,000 red and black pines before the tsunami devoured the forest.

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