On Friday March 11th 2011, at 2:45 PM, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck in the western Pacific Ocean, 75 kilometers East of the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake triggered a large tsunami. Japan. 3rd May 2011
On Friday March 11th 2011, at 2:45 PM, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck in the western Pacific Ocean, 75 kilometers East of the Tohoku region of Japan. It lasted approximately 6 minutes and was not only the most powerful known earthquake to have hit Japan, but one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since records began.
The earthquake triggered a large tsunami, with waves of up to 40 meters in height which surged towards the coastlines of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. The waves travelled up to 10 kilometers inland in some places.
The resulting tsunami was far more deadly and destructive than the actual quake, with entire towns being virtually wiped off the map. As of April 11th 2011, the National police agency confirmed 15,538 deaths, 5,685 injured, and 7,060 people missing. The World Bank estimates the cost at 235 billion dollars, making it the world's most expensive disaster. Formerly the world's biggest donor, Japan may become the world's biggest aid recipient this year. The government recently passed a budget to deal with the crisis with more than 250 billion yen set aside for clearing the debris alone. It’s been said that it will take up to 3 years to deal with the estimated 25 million tons of debris, which will have to be scrapped, burnt or recycled. This includes at least 16 towns, 95,000 buildings, 23 railway stations and hundreds of kilometers of roads, railway tracks and sea walls.
The city of Ishinomaki, situated in Miyagi prefecture, was among the most seriously affected by the tsunami. A wave approximately 10 meters high travelled 600 meters inland, killing an estimated 3,097 people, currently the highest death toll of all the affected areas, and leaving an estimated 2,770 unaccounted for. The town of Minamisanriku, also situated in Miyagi prefecture, was largely destroyed by waves of an estimated 16 meters or more, sweeping away most of the buildings and leaving an estimated 9,500 people missing, roughly half of the overall population. The town’s geography, a bay surrounded by hills with a central river focused and intensified the tsunami’s damage. The town had two evacuation centers where residents could go in the event of a tsunami, one on the southern headland overlooking the town, the other back from the centre of town. However, although both were 20 meters above sea level, the tsunami inundated them and washed people away. At least 31 of the town's eighty designated evacuation sites were inundated by the tsunami. Rikuzentakata was reported to have been "wiped off the map" by the tsunami. According to the police, every building smaller than three stories high had been completely flooded. The Japan Self-Defense Forces reports between 300 and 400 bodies have been found in the town. As of April 3rd 2011, 1000 people from the town were confirmed dead with 1,300 still missing. Among the dead were said to be 49 firefighters from the region. In total, 284 firefighters are known to have died along the affected coast, many while closing tsunami barrier doors along the seashore. Rikunzentakata’s tsunami shelters were designed for a wave of 3 to 4 meters in height, with a seawall 6.5 meters in height, but the tsunami created a wave around 13 meters high which inundated the designated safe locations. Local officials estimate that 20 to 40 percent of the town's population is dead and 80 percent of the town’s 8,000 houses have been swept away. "Rikuzentakata effectively no longer exists." As of April 22nd 2011, the city of Kesennuma had confirmed 837 deaths with 1,196 missing.
The earthquake shifted the city of Ishinomaki southeast and downward, lowering it by as much as 1.2 meters in some areas and causing it to flood twice daily at high tide. The sea-level remains alarmingly high in many of the affected areas. The smell of soil saturated with sea water, fish and other artifacts of destruction hangs in the air and is hindering reconstruction efforts, according to volunteers and reports on the ground. The tsunami left behind large quantities of waste which will become more pungent as the days drag on, attracting flocks of scavenging seagulls and other vermin. Wooded areas acted like nets, catching cars and other large debris, further challenging the clean up operation. Those whose homes were spared by being on higher ground were left without access to utilities or supplies. In Minamisanriku, all of the three sources of water supply within the city have been flooded, so the water exceeds the average of salt density decided by the government. Residents therefore have to rely on daily deliveries to receive clean water.
Across the region, stone, metal, snapped telegraph poles and other debris cover what would have once been houses. Japanese buildings are often made of a very thin fascia over a steel or concrete frame. These fascias were easily torn away by the waves. Many others made simply of wood. One side of a building might look fine only to be completely gutted on the other side. Others have been completely destroyed all the away through leaving only the frames behind. Many buildings are a twisted mess of wire and metal. In some cases only the foundations remain, such as the tiled floor of a bathroom. Upon entering Ishinomaki, it is difficult to spot anything wrong, but the clues are there: dirty, dusty streets, missing curbstones for example, but they do nothing to prepare you for the moment that you turn the block to find buildings with no front walls. The gap between the destruction and life as usual is small. Most of the destruction in the city is along the port district. The damaged industrial warehouses and equipment lay largely abandoned, rendering the place virtually a ghost town with many buildings evacuated and abandoned. In minamisanriku barely a handful of buildings remain, one of which being the multi-story Shizugawa hospital, which was engulfed up to the 4th floor by water. 74 out of 109 patients died. Close to 200 people were rescued from the roof of the building. There were many houses within 200 meters of the seawall. The devastation at Minamisanriku is breathtaking. Much of the city looks like a Hollywood post-apocalyptic wasteland. The spectacle is reminiscent of a panorama at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima depicting the aftermath of the atomic bombing there. Rubble and debris is everywhere, and the sea wall has broken away. The town's Disaster Prevention Center is a clear landmark in the flattened town. It was by climbing the sturdy antennae that some of Minamisanriku's government officials survived the tsunami.
Road damage is quite common across the region, much of it caused by the earthquake as well as the tsunami. Debris can be found several kilometers from the shore. Almost all roads are unblocked, but the debris is simply pushed to the side or piled up in ever bigger heaps. These are taken by truck to dumps outside the town, where the wreckage forms 15 meter high mounds of twisted metal, broken beams and ripped-up masonry. Countless cars and boats have been irreparably damaged and shifted, often to bizarre locations. Wrecked vehicles are moved to open areas such as parks, which have become a graveyard for thousands of cars. Owners can claim their vehicles or condemn them as scrap. In Kesennuma, large ships from the town's fishing fleet in the harbor smashed into one another, and the spilled fuel caught fire and burned for four days. They were carried by successive waves into neighborhoods that burnt to the ground after the waters had withdrawn. Houses and other buildings were ablaze. But there are signs of recovery, gas stations are up and running, one in Minamisanriku barely 200 meters from the sea, a necessary service for the post-disaster increased traffic along the coastal road.
Aside from the large overwhelming sights, there are more sobering discoveries in the affected areas. Amongst the rubble are many personal artifacts, photographs, certificates, records, clothing and other items awaiting collection, most remain unclaimed. They are a chilling reminder of the lives lost. People can be seen rummaging through the remains, looking for anything they can salvage. Small trinkets and shrines can be found piled neatly by the side of the road in memory to those lost in the tsunami. Although there were few reports of looting, desperation did lead to cars being syphoned and vending machines being broken into.
The Self Defense Forces and the police are a large presence in the region. The Self Defense Forces deployed around 100,000 troops from all over Japan to the affected quake region, this figure being nearly 40 percent of the overall strength of the forces. Also, for the first time, the SDF’s reserve forces were being mobilized. Some 6,500 reservists have volunteered. In addition to damage being sustained at the Matsushima Air Base, it emerged that 300 base personnel who were on leave at the time of the tsunami were among the missing from surrounding communities. In a recent survey 95 percent of the respondents said that the SDF’s response to the disaster was good. The soldiers work on the larger tasks, but can also often be seen helping victims in other ways, such as finding the location of their properties. Every 20 or 30 minutes, soldiers operating the diggers stop so locals can pick through the debris to see if any of their possessions have been uncovered. SDF vehicles are in abundance. Bulldozers, dumper trucks, drills and cranes are a constant presence in affected areas. Jet skis operated by the coast guard are equipped with sonar to search for underwater objects and a high-definition camera to distinguish between bodies and other objects. Self-Defense Forces patrol the disaster relief zone, primarily to ensure that the evacuation centers and isolated individuals have their basic needs met. The work of the SDF is currently in its third phase, much of the work being picked up by the police forces and local residents, many of whom have acquired digger licenses to work through the rubble. Volunteer organizations have been cleaning and rehabilitating homes for re‐habitation, and distributing tons of fresh food. They are made up of people from all over the country including many foreign residents, but unfortunately as time progresses the number of volunteers is falling.