For the past three weeks, survivors of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami have been largely consumed with worries about their hour-to-hour existence. But government officials say that now, with main roads cleared and temperatures thawing, survivors are returning by the thousands to sort through debris, claim their belongings and, in many cases, confirm firsthand that they have no possessions left.
Japan’s northeastern coastline is a several-hundred-mile cleanup job. Miyagi prefecture alone has 15 million to 18 million tons of debris. That garbage — sorted and stacked along roads, bobbing in rivers, and twisted and strewn into crevasses — stands as a hot, rotting impediment, making thoughts about the future seem impractical and obscene.
“We’re in great trouble with all the cleanup. We need more resources,” said Hiroshi Kameyama, mayor of Ishinomaki, a city 10 miles from Shirahama. “Until now, we have been working hard to save people and find the missing, but from now on, I somehow have to guarantee that people can live here. The first thing to do is demolish all these things.”
Japan’s government has promised to shoulder the full cost of debris removal — which could top several billion dollars, if the 1995 Kobe earthquake is anything to go by. Even beginning the debris removal, however, demands caution. About 16,000 people are still missing, and they could be somewhere under that mess.
In the riverfront areas of industrial Ishinomaki, flattened by the tsunami, yellow Komatsu excavators arrive at a property only if the owners have requested that it be cleared out. In farther-flung towns, such as Shirahama, the damage is so great that government officials assume nothing can be salvaged. But they hold off on debris removal until Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have combed the area, searching for bodies.
‘I can’t find anything’
Shirahama was once a secluded riverfront community, with 40 houses wedged between mountains along the Kitakami River. Fishermen and farmers lived there. Evergreens blanketed hills on both sides, and tunnels connected the town’s main road to destinations east and west.
Sato considered Shirahama a comfortable place, but that was before the town turned to water, 29 people disappeared and 50 others gathered in the eastbound tunnel, lighting fires to stay warm. With roads from Ishinomaki torn up by the earthquake and blocked by landslides, rescue workers didn’t reach the survivors until 10 days later.