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Immensity of tsunami’s toll rocks port city

SENDAI, Japan | Miles from the ocean's edge, mud-spattered survivors wandered streets strewn with fallen trees, crumpled cars, even small airplanes. Relics of lives now destroyed were everywhere — half a piano, a textbook, a soiled red sleeping bag.

On Saturday, a day after a massive tsunami tore through Sendai, residents surveyed the devastation that has laid waste to whole sections of the northern port of 1 million people, 80 miles from the epicenter of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that set off one of the greatest disasters in Japan's history.

Rescue workers plied boats through murky waters around flooded structures, nosing their way through a sea of detritus, while smoke from at least one large fire billowed in the distance. Power and phone reception remained cut, as the city continued to be jolted by powerful aftershocks.

Hundreds of people lined up outside the few still-operating supermarkets in Sendai, stocking up on drinks and instant noodles, knowing it would be a long time before life returns to anything like normal. Some recalled how they cheated death as the massive waves swept some 6 miles inland.

A convenience store 3 miles from the shore was open for business, though there was no power and the floors were covered with a thick layer of grime.

"The flood came in from behind the store and swept around both sides," said shop owner Wakio Fushima. "Cars were flowing right by."

Many Sendai residents spent the night outdoors, or wandering debris-strewn streets, unable to return to homes damaged or destroyed by the quake or tsunami. Those who did find a place to rest for the night awoke to scenes of utter devastation.

The city's Wakabayashi district, which runs directly up to the sea, was a swampy wasteland with murky, waist-high water. Most houses were completely flattened, as if a giant bulldozer had swept through.

Satako Yusawa, 69, said she has felt many earthquakes, but never anything like what hit Friday afternoon.

"I was having tea at a friend's house when the quake hit. We were desperately trying to hold the furniture up, but the shaking was so fierce that we just panicked," she said.

The tsunami directly hit the city's dock area and then barreled down a long approach road, carrying giant metal shipping containers about a mile inland and smashing buildings along the way.

Cell-phone saleswoman Naomi Ishizawa, 24, was working when the quake hit in the midafternoon. She said it took until nightfall to reach her house just outside Sendai and check on her parents, who were both unhurt. Their home was still standing, but the walls of a bedroom and bathroom had collapsed and debris was strewn throughout.

And yet, she was lucky. The tsunami's inland march stopped just short of her residence. Other houses in her neighborhood were destroyed.

Like many people throughout Japan's northeast, she had not heard from others in her family and was worried.

"My uncle and his family live in an area … where there were a lot of deaths," Miss Ishizawa said. "We can't reach them."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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