The place to which Yoichi Sato returned Wednesday had become something far less than a home. Ribbons of exposed insulation and radiant foil hung from two of the walls. The floor was cluttered with children’s books, old receipts and fern branches, all crusted in ocean-floor mud.

When the quake-triggered tsunami hit March 11, Sato watched from a hillside as the wave cut his house like a deck of cards. The first floor rolled into the ocean. The second floor carried about 250 feet, sailing over a hill, past a gas station and finally settling at a 20-degree angle atop the concrete foundation of what had once been a Buddhist temple.

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.

Only in the days since has Sato taken daily walks from the shelter where he’s staying to his old home, or the half that he can find. His wife, his three children and his grandmother survived. They are all at shelters, staying warm and receiving meals. But one element is missing from their life: possessions. Things once filled Sato’s home, and now those things and the home are almost indistinguishable, ground to the same pulp. On Wednesday, Sato put on waders and borrowed trousers and resumed his search.

He found a buoy tucked under the floorboards. Near a gash where the beige walls had been knocked out, he found a spool of paper — several feet of receipts, which had blown from a nearby gas station. Inside the home, Sato found a children’s book with a grasshopper illustration on the front cover. He found colored pencils. But he found no photos, no important bank records, no forms of ID.

“I can’t find anything,” he said.

‘It’s a painstaking job’

In Ishinomaki and the surrounding towns, one’s fortune is explained by garbage. For thousands who lived closest to the water, their home is a wreck, and the lucky ones — arriving on bikes — pull out a few supplies. For those who lived at higher elevations, where the wall of water reached only waist high, their house can be salvaged, but the damp first-floor contents are piled outside in columns five or six feet high. Women wearing galoshes and track suits drag tatami mats onto their driveways. Young volunteers go house to house, offering help. Possessions pile outside: bookshelves, magazines, stuffed animals, ironing boards, jugs of panko bread crumbs.

“It’s a painstaking job,” one cleanup volunteer, Shojiro Takahishi, said Wednesday to a woman who was scrubbing the first floor of her home. “Don’t break your bones.”

Keiko Kato said she was living in a gym. “I want to move back home,” she said.

For now, Ishinomaki officials are coordinating cleanup for dozens of surrounding towns and have hired private contractors to haul the debris. Soon, the mayor said, the city would like to buy a set of incinerators. At some point, he said, Tokyo will reimburse the local governments for the expenses. But that hasn’t happened yet.

“All these things, they can’t be thrown away by hand,” said another town official, Yoshinori Sato. “We need machines.”

Special correspondents Koichi Ohtsu and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.