Michael Dickison: Signs of life in a wasteland stretching for 190km

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Herald reporter Michael Dickison grew up in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. He has returned to report on his tsunami-ravaged homeland.

Residents look through the rubble to salvage possessions and important documents in the Arahama region. Photo / Michael Dickison
Residents look through the rubble to salvage possessions and important documents in the Arahama region. Photo / Michael Dickison

A man points out his house - an undistinguished patch of rubble on a whole coastline of them.

"My family were home during the earthquake. I think they're still inside," he said.

In the face of nuclear disaster, the Japanese coast ravaged by a tsunami can almost become an afterthought, even with 190km of it and 20,000 people missing or dead.

Partly it's because the damage is out of sight, limited to a strip within 10km of the shore. From cities nearby, let alone from overseas, it's a distant reality.

Until you cross the threshold.

From clean, unbroken roads and buildings, you step into ruins.

At first I see broken timber, rags and small pieces of wreckage swept to the tsunami's furthest reach - up to 10km inland in the worst areas.

As I keep walking, there's mud everywhere, piled thick on driveways and filling warped houses. It looks like the sludge that broke out from under Christchurch, but it's dark brown and shovelled from the coast by a wave.

Then I reach an open space that looks like paddocks. Much of the area is underwater; all of it is motley brown.

But there are roofs on the ground.

These are whole neighbourhoods, flattened into random wreckage.

It's the difference between heaven and hell, remarks a taxi driver as we drive along Sendai's coast through scenes of utter destruction.

The central city has been spared only because it is about 10km inland. Sendai is about the size of Auckland. Luckily, it wasn't built on the waterfront.

The coastal zone has no inhabitants; they have all evacuated. Some return to salvage what they can.

A young man rips off the registration plate on his upturned motorbike. A couple brush mud off the things they find in their collapsed home.

More than in the city, every last person wears a hat and mask. Their grief can be seen in their eyes.

The wind is blustery off the ocean and the sky is grey.

A man stands by a pile of tiles and timbers. I ask if there's anything I can help with.

"Thank you - but it's time to give up. It's been too long," he said. His family is missing. He thanks me again and bows low.

The road ends at a beach that looks too calm to have caused such hurt.

I get a text message from my mother there. She says: work hard, take care and come home soon. I can't quite remember where she thinks I am.

It takes 45 minutes to walk back out. Hundreds of bodies have been pulled from the neighbourhood and 700 survivors are sheltered in an evacuation centre at a nearby school. They can't let me in, but they feed me and ask how I'm getting on.

The taxi driver who picks me up has lost his house in the tsunami.

There's no way he can think about the future yet. His wife and daughter are safe, but it took him four days to find out. He ate nuts and chips for five days before a customer gave him a bit of bread.

"It tasted so good," he said, stuttering.

With all that's happened, he says a third of his brain feels like it isn't working.

He misses a turn. I wonder if it's going to be a long ride but the rest of the way is smooth.

At Sendai's port 7km up the coast, cars have been swept on to their roofs, on to their noses, up trees and into the walls of warehouses, factories and houses. The lifeless shells are mangled and strewn everywhere.

The tsunami has blasted through every building along a 2km strip. I imagine Mt Maunganui. Every house on the peninsula would be flattened or barrelled by trees, cars and other buildings. There would be little left but debris.

There is little activity aside from a few stragglers riding through the ruins on their bicycles in disbelief.

A man has come to check on his car, which is standing on its front bumper. Through the broken front windshield he reaches in to salvage registration documents.

The taxi driver, as he drops me off as far into the wreckage as the road allows, says he almost became one of the thousands trapped and killed in their vehicles.

On the day of the earthquake, he was going to an event on the waterfront. He felt the earthquake in his car but, seeing no damage, kept going.

It was only when he arrived that he learned a tsunami was coming. He turned around and in a matter of minutes the entire area was destroyed.

"I probably would have been dead," he said. "We all have these 'what ifs'. It's unreal."

Electricity was restored at a relative's place only yesterday, more than a week after the earthquake, and his family now gets by on meagre meals of rice.

But the coast's destitution is a reminder of just how relative things are - and just how thin the dividing line can be.

A man sees me walking around the wreckage and asks if I need help getting anywhere. He is on his way to meet his friend trying to pick up the pieces of his business. His house, with his wife and small children inside, barely escaped the destruction. He apologises that he doesn't have a hot drink to offer me.

Nearby a gathering of people have found something. Some of them are on bicycles, others are in cars with work gloves on and children helping out.

Looters! Well, sort of.

A beer factory has been gutted and thousands of unopened cans of beer are littered through the debris. When clean-up crews pass through, they put the full cans out with the rubbish.

So we better not let them go to waste, a man says. He has filled up boxes on the front and back of his bicycle and is heading home beyond the divide.

For me, it's a two-hour walk back to the nearest bus stop, a walk made easier by a discovery in a vending machine: a hot drink of pancake in a can. I have mixed feelings.

- NZ Herald

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