Harumi Watanabe rushed home to her elderly parents as soon as the earthquake struck. “I closed my shop and drove as quickly as I could,” she said. But there wasn’t enough time to save them. “They were old and too weak to walk so I couldn’t get them in the car.”
They were still in the living room when the tsunami hit. Though she gripped their wrinkled hands with all her might, the force of the water was too strong.
Her mother and father were ripped from her grasp, screaming that they couldn’t breathe before they were dragged down. Her last words to them as the surge filled their family home with water, mud and carnage had been a desperate cry to “stay together”.
Watanabe was then fighting for her own life. “I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck. There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would die.”
Watanabe is one of the fortunate few residents to survive in Shintona, a coastal town near the centre of Japan‘s biggest earthquake since records began and one of the worst affected by the tsunami.
The nearby bay is filled with cars, concrete and half-sunken homes that have floated away from their foundations. A railway line has been ripped from the ground and twisted vertically like a garden fence. Cars and motorbikes lie broken and so roughly reparked by the tsunami that some balance precariously on their bonnets. Emergency and media helicopters buzz overhead and the bereaved sob by the side of the road. The air is rich with the rotting smell of disaster and death.
Japanese army personnel and rescue workers search for bodies amid the mud. Their work is sporadically interrupted by earthquake alerts and tsunami warnings, but they do not have to look far. The dead are wrapped in blue plastic sheeting and laid on military stretchers.
Their numbers rose as quickly as the dozen or so rescue workers were able to find and carry them.
“We have found 50 bodies here today and there’ll be more,” said an officer in the self defence forces as his team took a quick lunchbreak. “We’re putting more efforts into rescue elsewhere as there is very little chance of anyone surviving here.”
The death toll in and around this area looks certain to rise. Drive east from Sendai and there are several stretches of devastated coastline.
Helicopters buzz above Xintomei and Nobiru, where hundreds of bodies have reportedly been discovered. Further round the coast in Minami Shirazu, close to 10,000 people are reportedly missing after their town was engulfed by the tsunami.
The full impact is still to be revealed. Rescue operations have been hampered by disrupted communications and ruptured roads. Travellers to the region are confronted by long traffic jams, broken fuel supply systems and diversions around broken nuclear power plants.
Since Friday’s earthquake, which has been upgraded to magnitude 9.0, the confirmed toll from the multiple calamities has climbed to more than 1,300 deaths, 1,700 injuries and at least 1,000 missing people, according to the National Police Agency. Many believe that is just the start. The beleaguered residents of Japan’s north-east have been exposed to a cocktail of terror that would seem far-fetched even in a disaster film.
Following the massive quake and a biblical flood, hundreds of thousands of residents have also been evacuated from the site of three broken nuclear reactors. Chemists have been inundated with previously unheard of requests for potassium iodide, which can help minimise the risk to the thyroid glands in the event of a release of radioactivity.
So many aftershocks ripple across the region each day that many locals ignore the official advice that they hide under tables until the tremor has finished. This is dangerous, according to Takashi Yokota, director of the Earthquake Prediction Information Division of the Meteorological Agency, which warns of a 70% chance of a further quake of 7.0 magnitude or greater in the next three days.
Much of the concern is focusing on of the elderly. At Shintona, about 90% of the victims were described as old, suggesting this might become a defining characteristic of the disaster.
After the Sichuan earthquake in China, in which an estimated 90,000 people died, the focus was on building design and the large numbers of children who died in collapsed schools. In Shintona, however, buildings have – for the most part – been remarkably resilient while the elderly population have proved painfully vulnerable. Several locals said the young had been able to flee quickly after the tsunami warning was issued, but the old found it harder to run.
“There are many old people here,” said Jiro Saito, head of the local disaster countermeasures committee. “We have evacuation drills, but people could not get to the meeting place in time. The tsunami was beyond our expectations.We must reflect on our shortcomings.”
Japan is proud of having the world’s longest life expectancy, which is particularly evident in rural areas.
Shintona’s large elderly population is evident in the intimate belongings now scattered in the muddy streets – 12-inch vinyl albums of Enka (Japanese blues) classics, a walking stick and tatami mats.
This community is home to one of Miyagi’s first old people’s homes. The care manager, Kiyoko Kawanami, said she was able to confirm only 20 of the 90 residents as safe. “We don’t know what happened to them. The tsunami hit while we were trying to organise an evacuation,” she said.
Kawanami took one group to the emergency shelter in Nobiru primary school. “On the way back I was stuck in traffic. There was an alarm. People screamed at me to get out of the car and run uphill. It saved me. My feet got wet but nothing else.”
The fate of the other residents remains unclear. Shigejiro Murayama had come to look for his lost brother. While his wife cried and sighed beside him, he silently progressed as quickly as he was able with a walking stick. But he had to turn back when he saw what had happened.
“There is no road left,” he laughed darkly. “This is a mess. Look at what has happened.”
In the nearby city of Sendai, smoke continues to billow across the sky from the fire at a petrochemical factory. The air is filled with the sound of sirens and birdsong.
Ai Matsuhashi is showing signs of post-traumatic shock. “I can’t sleep. I feel like the world is shaking all the time. I heard that is normal after a big earthquake, but I’m still worried,” she said .
In a first step towards rebuilding her life, she has tried to tidy up and repair the broken furniture and belongings. But it is a frustrating task because each time she cleans up, there is another aftershock that tilts everything back over again.
Since the electricity was restored on Saturday night, she has left the television on for comfort, but there are other worries “My biggest problem is the lack of a toilet. The authorities tell us we should use plastic bags. But I can’t bring myself to do that.”
Shortages of water, fuel and food are a major concern. The city and surrounding areas are filled with long lines of people and cars queueing up for water and petrol.
“We evacuated to high ground and a strong modern building so we are safe, but we haven’t had water or electricity since the quake,” said Yuta Kimura as she waited for her turn to use a well at a shrine in Matsushima.
The authorities have established refugee centres in municipal schools and gymnasiums, but several people said they were reluctant to go. “There is no point going to Sendai,” said Toshinobu Abe.
“They have just as little food and electricity as us. The refugee centres there are too crowded. We are better off seeking shelter at the temple near our home,” he added as he tried to salvage some clothes and blankets from the mud, weeds and fishing nets in his now uninhabitable home.