Today, the mud is dried and gone, but Urayasu, the home of Tokyo Disneyland, resembles a town reflected in a funhouse hall of mirrors: severely warped streets and fences, tilted houses and police booths, sunken utility poles and pushed-up manhole covers resting on three-foot-high piles of dirt. At Disneyland, the parking lot rippled and buckled, a ride the 68,000 patrons at the park that day hadn’t counted on.
To the list of destructive forces that have wracked Japan — earthquake, tsunami, radiation from a crippled nuclear power plant — can be added liquefaction, a phenomenon that occurs when the earth’s violent shaking forces sand particles, once packed tightly, to shift apart and allow water to seep in.
Moments after the quake, Urayasu literally began sinking into the ocean.
“It was like we were surfing,” said Chiharu Asami, 58, who operates a newspaper delivery service. “We could see the ground shaking and the telephone pillar sank two meters. The muddy water came right away, up to my ankles. Even when the water went away, the mud stayed for a week.”
At City Hall on Wednesday, Mayor Hideki Matsuzaki was working from an emergency command center on the ground floor, where a call center operates around the clock. City employees from the gas, electric, sewage and water departments were huddled around computers. A large town map, highlighted in various colors to mark different problem areas, dominated a conference table.
Behind Matsuzaki, a poster read: “Tomorrow comes.” He has been so busy dealing with the here and now, however, that he failed to collect ballots for the prefecture council elections, prompting a rebuke from Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita.
“He hasn’t even visited here,” Matsuzaki scoffed. “We have to repair the lifelines before we have an election.”
He noted that Japan had dealt with significant liquefaction after the Kobe earthquake of 1995, but “nothing of this vast size.”
As much as 85 percent of the town — an area of almost 1,000 acres — had been submerged in mud, Matsuzaki said. He estimated it would take several years and cost $890 million to repair the infrastructure and reinforce it — an amount far exceeding the town’s $743 million annual operating budget.
Susumu Yasuda, a civil engineer from Tokyo Denki University, said that Urayasu is highly susceptible to liquefaction because the town, built after World War II, sits on reclaimed land made from a mix of volcanic ash, garbage and sand dredged from Tokyo Bay.