Hope in Japan mixes with fear as reality rolls in
Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
As the road emerges from the foothills at Kesennuma, the illusion of normalcy is shattered.
The first indication that something is amiss is the absence of lighting, and then a few broken windows. Few people are outside.
As the valley opens up, an apocalyptic scene appears.
Where there were once homes, stores and businesses is a plain of jagged wood and metal. A few concrete hulks, once buildings, are scattered throughout.
Millions of people struggled for a sixth day without adequate food, heat and water service. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s, with biting winds and snow flurries. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, some sleeping on the floor in school gymnasiums.
Several thousand people are listed as missing.
The debris spreads over this small valley from the sea to the hillsides above. A clear line of debris runs 15 to 20 feet into the pine forest that cloaks the hillsides, showing how far the wall of water reached.
More than a dozen pine trees that faced the harbor, perhaps 100 feet tall, lay flattened like a line of toothpicks.
Lines of Japanese army trucks and jeeps head in and out. The Japanese army has set up a headquarters in the mountain town of Ichinoseki, which was untouched by the tsunami that roared into the coast here six days ago. The soldiers are coordinating recovery efforts, driving daily down into towns below.
Convoys of firetrucks, their lights flashing in the growing dusk, moved slowly out along he roadway back toward Ichinoseki for the night.
Bulldozers have cleared the roads of wreckage, leaving block upon block of ruined buildings pristine in the freezing wind.
There did not appear to be recovery efforts taking place. It is so cold that is it unlikely anyone survived trapped so long. Winds of 15 mph to 30 mph and unusual low temperatures along with flurries throughout the day are making life harder on survivors, many of whom are without heat or have it only certain times of the day because of power blackouts.
FULL COVERAGE: Japan copes with devastation
The tsunami swept up homes and cars and then churned them into pieces like a giant sheet of sandpaper scrubbing everything in its wake. Concrete pads of buildings are surrounded by stacks of twisted metal and broken wood.
Clinging to the piles are streamers of plastic and cloth caught in jagged edges, flapping in the wind.
The town's hospital still stands, its doors and windows blown out by the water. Patients' clothes are caught in the ceiling. A small boat is perched on what once was a third-story balcony. On the upper stories, fishing nets and floats hang from the roof.
There are no bodies. It was not known whether patients here were taken to safety in the time between the earthquake and when the tsunami hit.
Nearby, a cement platform and the gaping barrels of four heavy-duty washing machines are all that remain of what must have been a laundromat.
At the edge of one stack of timber is a squared piece of wood with a hand-cut mortise and tenon, the traditional joint used in many Japanese buildings. Next to it is a single drawer from a wooden desk or dresser, about the size of a telephone book, its silver pull still shiny.
Inside is a thin layer of sand and water deposited by an ocean that is now back a half-mile away.
In Natori, a list on the wall of City Hall reveals the dead. Some are named. Others are identified by short descriptions.
Female. About 50. Peanuts in left chest pocket. Large mole. Seiko watch.
Male. Seventy to 80 years old. Wearing an apron that says "Rentacom."
One set catches the eye of Hideki Kano, a man who appears to be in his 30s.
"I think that's my mom!" he says. Kano rushes out into the snow, headed for a makeshift morgue.
In the industrial town of Kamaishi, 70 British firefighters in bright orange uniforms clamber over piles of upturned cars to search a narrow row of pulverized homes.
One woman's body is found wedged beneath a refrigerator in a two-story home pushed onto its side.
"Today and tomorrow there is still hope that we will find survivors," says Pete Stevenson, head of the British rescue crews.
Those seeking loved ones have posted hopeful notes in temporary shelters and other public places. They cover the front windows of Natori City Hall, blocking the view inside:
"I'm looking for an old man, 75 years old, please call if you find him."
"Kento Shibayama is in the health center in front of the public gym."
"To Miyuki Nakayama: Everyone in your family is OK!"
Kesen is virtually a ghost town.
Miyuki Kanno, who lives a few miles away, rode his bicycle down a mud- and water-choked section of road looking for information about missing relatives.
"I don't know if the young people will come back, but they'll rebuild," he says.
Farther north in Ofunato, 72-year-old Keiichi Nagai is less sure.
He stands on the edge of a wasteland that used to be the low-lying part of the city. He shakes his head. "There's nothing left, there's nothing left."
He points at a fishing boat that he said destroyed his house.
"There's nothing left of this place," he says. "It's scary to live here now. There's a chance another tsunami will come. I won't live here. Maybe on the hill, but not here."
March 16, 2011