Science, Tech & Environment

Dealing with the devastation

by Curt Petrovich

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An elderly woman in a white kerchief slowly climbs up a hill of torn metal, shattered wood, and crumpled cars. She stoops here and there, poking at the smashed bits of furniture jutting up from the mud.

Sue Hironae rests for a moment on some thick wooden beams that may once have held up the walls of her house in the fishing village of Noda. It's just one of dozens of villages and towns along Japan's northeast coast that were consumed by the tsunami.

The 72-year-old grandmother takes a break while her 78-year-old husband continues to explore the remains of a building behind her.

"We are looking for something we left behind in the house — to remember our lives," Sue Hironae said.

Hironae's first job, though, was to find her house. Somehow she did, even with the streets of her village buried beneath tons of mud, trees and the pulverized personal belongings of everyone she knows. But the search for her keepsakes has been futile.

"So far, all I've found are some clothes," she said. "When I fled, I ran away with just what I'm wearing."

But the search helps keep the weight of what's happened from crushing her spirit. Through an interpreter, I asked Hironae to tell me what she thinks when she sees the devastation around her. After a moment, Hironae placed one gloved hand on her heart. The translator said to me, "She has nothing to say right now. She's speechless."

The village offices, although spared by the tsunami, are coated with mud. Here people can pick up bottled water, fruit, bread and noodles to keep them going for one more day. One of the rooms is now a command center for police, the military and volunteer firefighters who've come from as far away as Nagasaki, hundreds of miles away.

Mayor Yuji Oda said the insatiable tsunami raced nearly two miles inland, swallowing more than 400 houses, before spitting them back out again in pieces. "I first wondered is this real or not?" the mayor said.

Forty people from the village are dead or missing. "The people are trained to evacuate," Mayor Oda said. "But this time, despite the siren and warnings, the speed of the tsunami was too great. The difference between those who made it to safety and those who didn't was 10 to 15 seconds."

In his spare time, Oda taught judo to children in the village. Some of those who died were his young students.

"The first priority," Oda said, "is to find the missing people. Then we must clean up. We will rebuild, but first we must find the missing people."

Search crews accompany the heavy equipment crawling through the rubble. They use poles to probe the remains of collapsed houses and peer inside, before giving the okay to knock it down.

An automated chime, broadcast throughout the village, marks the hours for people who've lost their sense of time.

Yosuke Oda is one of them. He stands on the street beside boxes of photo albums splattered with mud. He and several others have created this sidewalk display — not as an exhibition, but to reunite people with photos they are continuing to find in the debris.

"Not only are people's houses gone, but their memories have been taken by the tsunami as well," Yosuke Oda said. "This is a way of giving those memories back to people."

The pictures show life before the tsunami; children, vacations, school days and holidays, lives that have been changed forever.

The tsunami took Oda's house, and one of his best friends. Being a guardian of people's memories gives him purpose, he said. "I think it will take up to 10 years to get back to a normal life here, but the village must be returned to the way it was," he said.

Out in the debris field, Sue Hironae continues her search for any memento of her past. "I don't know how I am going to live" Hironae said. "I don't want to move to another city because this is my home — I was born here."

Before going on her way, a crack appears in the stoicism that Hironae and other Japanese here have displayed to strangers. After saying goodbye, she quietly uttered the phrase, "Please help."