Japan earthquake, tsunami leave scenes of destruction in northeastern city of Sendai

March 13, 2011

In the center of this city, the economic hub of northern Japan, the traffic lights and vending machines are still working.

But the scene turns to chaos in the east of Sendai, along the coast. There, a dark cloud of smoke from a still-raging fire wafted over a wasteland of smashed houses, garbage heaps and uprooted trees.

Cars crushed like tin cans — tossed by the tsunami that thundered across this part of Sendai on Friday — lay scattered next to a primary school, a clock on the outside wall stuck at 2:47, the time the quake struck. Inside, pictures of grinning schoolchildren hung on the wall. Blackbirds circled over crumpled wooden houses torn from their foundations.

As the sun rose Monday over the devastation, sirens wailed and waves from the sea that had brought so much destruction crashed to shore in the distance.

In the foundations of one vanished house, a hair dryer, a heater and cooking pots peeked out from a field of mud. A family whose house was flattened returned Monday to find a sodden photo album but not much more.

Cranes on a seafront loading dock, one snapped in two, signposted what used to be a throbbing manufacturing center. A Chinook military helicopter clattered overhead toward the battered but still standing steel factory, now spewing smoke from a fire lit by the quake.

Masahiru Watanabe returned Monday morning to gaze at his former workplace. Gasping in disbelief, he said he hoped to one day return to work at the steel factory, but no time soon.

He was working Friday when the tsunami hit. He took shelter in a three-story building. Water rose to his chest, and he went to the roof. He didn’t get out until water receded Saturday. “Terrible, terrible,” he muttered as he watched smoke pour from the seafront factory.

Away from the coast, pristine snow-covered mountains rise above a city cleaved in two — with downtown office blocks and fancy boutiques largely untouched by Japan’s strongest recorded earthquake, and a mud-clogged expanse of wreckage and ruin in the city’s industrial zones.

Though not damaged physically, the downtown area of Sendai is reeling, quietly and patiently, from the disaster, mixing normality with the surreal. Outside the shuttered central station, street sweepers went about their business picking up minute pieces of litter while scores of people waited nearby to recharge their mobile phones at a battery of power points, set up by authorities. Much of the city has no power.

The dividing line is an inlet from the sea, now entirely still but swollen with tires, the remains of houses and other detritus left by the tsunami, which sent 33-foot waves surging onto the coast. A shattered road drips chunks of tarmac toward the water. Nearby lies a Toyota hatchback — so new that it still has plastic on the seats — and a heap of gas canisters and workers’ helmets.

As rescue workers in blue hats and big rubber boots fanned out through the wreckage early Monday, others went about their more mundane morning rituals. A young woman in a sweat suit jogged along the no-longer frothing water’s edge, dancing around rubble. On a leash, two Pekingese dogs ran along beside her.

Three police officers, one carrying a stretcher, poked through rubble in search of a corpse. They found nothing and drove off in an ambulance. Marked on the back of their blue uniforms were the English words “Criminal Investigation Miyagi Police.”

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