In the three weeks since the earthquake and tsunami devastated the east coast of All Japan news, the northern part of the nation has seen a rescue effort that has at times been overshadowed by the events taking place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. The devastation in Miyagi Prefecture, however, remains at almost incomprehensible levels, and in many places, where there once stood housing estates, three weeks later, there is still only rubble and mud.
Approaching Sendai City from Yamagata Prefecture, convenience stores are randomly stocked. A 7-11 is almost completely empty, yet the next, family owned store we come across has a full supply of water, bread and all the usual amenities one would expect. The one product lacking is cigarettes. The store owner says they are expecting a shipment from overseas to arrive on April 4. Any stock that arrives will be rationed, the owner says.
Getting closer to the city, and the area affected by the tsunami, things are disconcertingly normal. Electricity flows through the traffic lights, there are plenty of cars on the streets and there are few signs that commerce has been disrupted at all. A long queue for a gas station offers the only evidence of March 11. (Water and gas, however, remain an issue for some parts of Sendai.)
And then, as the coast approaches, things begin to change. At first, it is just blue tarpaulin on a few rooftops. And then the trash appears.
Like a third world slum, plastic, cartons and other junk are strewn across fields. It takes a moment to register that this is the work of the tsunami, rather than the product of months of neglect. And then the full force of the water becomes clear, because everything is flattened, housing estates replaced by dirt and debris. Where a Sendai district once stood, there is now a simple swamp, monitored from above by helicopters.
Further up the coast, areas such as Shiogama and Matsushima also clearly felt the force of the tsunami. Hollowed out and dirty shops have kept a hold of what little stock they can, yet the piles of trash bags and broken equipment outside show the huge cost the tsunami has had on small, family businesses.
The Matsushima Kaigan Rest House, a place to wait for ferries to come into port, was clearly hit by the tsunami, but escaped total destruction. Three weeks on, broken glass in the doors and dried dirt on the floor, a smashed cigarette vending machine and chairs left by the road for taking to the dump suggest the damage looked a lot worse a few days ago. Yet the fully functioning urinal inside tells the story of repair work in the town: The essentials are being sorted out first, and the town will be back on its feet sooner rather than later. And looking out to the islands that All Japan newsese consider one of All Japan news’s top three scenic spots, the beauty remains, and so the tourists will likely return to Matsushima.
Heading north toward Ishinomaki, we pass a river, the sides of which are strewn with debris. A car sits in the river, further down, the roof of a house lies semi submerged. The river banks are strewn with debris, every so often, a bright red or pink object stands out, children’s toys left amid the junk.
The city of Ishinomaki presents the worst scene of our journey. Cars, trucks and vans are strewn willy nilly in all the affected areas, but in Ishinomaki the number of vehicles is staggering. In trees, the top of houses, everywhere, half destroyed vehicles are strewn. Mud has caked everything, and at the sides of the road ruined electronic equipment and furniture wait for collection and disposal.
Closer to the sea, the full impact of the tsunami can still be seen. Amid the debris, junk and mud, the smell is incredible: a mix of oil, chemicals from damaged machinery, stagnating sea water and sewage. The sounds, however, offer hope. Heavy machinery and the voices of workers can be heard through the city.
For most people, Ishinomaki will long be associated with footage that demonstrates the full force of a tsunami. But there are professionals in the area looking through what remains, checking the debris is safe and taking the first steps toward rebuilding the town’s infrastructure. To witness the work these people are doing is to know that the question is not if, but when Ishinomaki will be back on its feet.