Towns vanish, thousands die – but a nation begins its fightback

The cataclysm was so powerful it shifted the Earth off its axis. Then the waters hit. David Randall reports on a land in crisis

Sunday 13 March 2011 01:00

After a cataclysm so powerful it moved the Earth 10 inches off its axis, Japan woke yesterday to find itself a country that had, literally, been knocked sideways.

With the north-east coast now shunted two metres from where it was on Friday morning, neighbourhood after neighbourhood is submerged under a grotesque soup of water and debris. Homes have been flattened as if by the swiping forearm of an angry giant. Tens of thousands of once orderly acres look like the world's ugliest landfill – a jumble of broken homes, cars, boats, and concrete, with shipping containers cluttering the landscape like Lego on an unkempt nursery floor.

And somewhere, under all this vast mess, are four entire trains, small towns, villages, and a fearful number of bodies. It could be 2,000, 10,000, or many times that number. In one town alone, 9,500 people are unaccounted for.

And, as if that were not enough, only 150 miles from Tokyo, radiation leaked from a nuclear plant crippled by an explosion. Officials were swift to assert that any meltdown, if it came, would not be on anything like the scale or severity of Chernobyl, but 170,000 were evacuated, and iodine distributed to some. It would not be the first nuclear incident where initial assurances proved optimistic.

The authorities at first said that an evacuation radius of six miles from the stricken 40-year-old Daiichi 1 reactor plant in Fukushima prefecture was adequate, but, an hour later, the boundary was extended to 13 miles. Vapour, said to consist of minimally radioactive steam, could be seen rising from the plant. And then, in the early hours this morning, there came a 6.4 Richter scale aftershock. More may come.

The explosion came as the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, (Tepco) was working desperately to reduce pressure in the core of the reactor. Lest anyone think that, in this land of commercial efficiency, the assurances of little risk can be trusted implicitly, they should remember that this is the nuclear industry they are dealing with. In 2002, the president of the country's largest power utility was forced to resign, along with four other senior executives, taking responsibility for suspected falsification of nuclear-plant safety records.

But despite everything, Japan's spirit remains intact. As one blogger wrote yesterday: "Our grandparents rebuilt Japan after the war and the growth was considered a miracle around the world. We will work to rebuild Japan in the same way again. Don't give up Japan! Don't give up Tohoku [the north-east region]!"

A stupendously large task, however, faces it. Friday's quake was the most monstrous even this, the world's most tremor-prone country, has ever recorded. This was strong enough to leave a 186-mile rupture on the ocean floor, but it was the subsequent tsunami – sending 30ft-high waves barrelling into Japan's north-east coast – which has turned a disaster into a cataclysm. The wall of water, moving at an estimated 25 mph, swallowed boats, homes, cars, trees and even small planes, and used these as battering rams as it charged up to six miles inland, demolishing all that stood in its way.

The town of Rikuzentakata, population 24,700, in northern Iwate prefecture, looked largely submerged in muddy water, with hardly a trace of houses or buildings of any kind. And in Kesennuma, where 74,000 lived, widespread fires somehow burned, despite a third of the city being submerged. And then there is – or, to be more accurate, was – the port of Sendai, which had the misfortune to be only 80 miles from the epicentre of the 8.9 quake.

Here, until Friday early afternoon, was the city of a million people. Now, at least a third of it lies beneath the filthy waters and mud, and what isn't drowned is largely destroyed. The city's Wakabayashi district, which runs directly up to the sea, remained a swampy wasteland, with murky, waist-high water. Most houses were completely flattened, as if a giant bulldozer had swept through.

Police said they found 200 to 300 bodies washed up on nearby beaches, and grief-stricken residents searched for their former homes, but, faced with dark waters where streets had been, many couldn't even tell where their houses once stood. Occasionally, there was something recognisable – a chair, a tyre, a beer-cooler. In the city's dock area, cars swept away by the waves sat on top of buildings, on the top of other cars, or jammed into staircases.

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 utter despair. Miles from the ocean's edge, weary, mud-spattered survivors wandered streets strewn with fallen trees, crumpled cars, and light aircraft. Relics of lives now destroyed were everywhere – half a piano, a textbook, a red sleeping bag.

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 were cut, while hundreds of people lined up outside the few still-operating supermarkets for basic commodities. The petrol stations on streets not covered with water were swamped with people waiting to fill their cars.

The situation was similar in scores of other towns and cities along the 1,300-mile eastern coastline hit by the tsunami. Early yesterday morning, Atsushi Koshi, 24, a call-centre worker in the coastal city of Tagajo, about 10 miles east of Sendai, said his cousin remained trapped on the roof of a department store with 200 to 300 other people awaiting rescue. The rest of his family was safe, but he wondered what to do, since the house he shares with his parents was tilting after the quake, and a concrete block wall had fallen apart.

One hospital in Miyagi prefecture was seen surrounded by water, and, at another, television footage showed staff on a rooftop waving banners with the words "FOOD" and "HELP" on them. Rescue teams and helicopters were plucking some people to safety, but, as night fell on the second day of the disaster, many were still awaiting salvation. Large areas are still surrounded by water and unreachable.

In five prefectures, or states, more than 215,000 people are now living in 1,350 temporary shelters. At an evacuation centre in Iwate, more than 1,000 people evacuated there had next to no supplies, gas, electricity, or running water. They had only been allowed one glass of water, one onigiri rice ball, and half a piece of bread as rations yesterday – a typical allocation in evacuation centres in all the hardest hit areas. Most of all, beyond the most stricken places, people are without power; some four million have no power, one million lack water.

Although Tokyo's inner-city transport is tentatively beginning a return to normal, all highways from the capital which lead to quake-hit areas were closed, except for emergency vehicles. Tens of thousands of people had been stranded on Friday with the rail network down, and, despite the city setting up 33 shelters in City Hall, on university campuses and in government offices, many spent the night at 24-hour cafés, hotels and offices. Mobile telephone communications were patchy, and calls to the devastated areas were going unanswered.

The enormous rescue and emergency supplies operation is now beginning to gather pace. The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, said 50,000 troops would be deployed, and a total of 190 military aircraft and 25 ships have been sent to the north-east, where more than 125 aftershocks have occurred. Many of them were above magnitude 6.0, which, in normal circumstances, would be considered strong.

The UN announced late on Friday that four foreign search-and-rescue teams, from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the US, were on their way. Singapore is sending an urban search-and-rescue team, as is Britain; Switzerland has sent 25 rescue and medical experts, with nine sniffer dogs.

All this, in a nation which may seem the epitome of industrial efficiency, but is the most heavily indebted major economy in the world. The first estimates of the total insured loss caused by the quake and tsunami were put yesterday at £9.3bn – a wickedly unwelcome burden on an economy just starting to show signs of revival. Japan will need all its famed organisational powers in the coming days and weeks.

Additional reporting by Midori Bills and Kyoko Nishimoto

The figures: Drowned towns, radiation leaks

Yesterday's main developments after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck north-east Japan on Friday and set off a tsunami:

* More than 1,700 people officially dead or missing, with many more unaccounted for, including 9,500 people in one town.

* Radiation leaks from a damaged nuclear plant after an explosion blows off the roof, raising fears of a meltdown at the facility north of Tokyo.

* Three workers suffer radiation exposure near Fukushima nuclear plant. Nuclear safety agency rates the incident a 4 on the 1-7 International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, less serious than Three Mile Island, a 5, and Chernobyl, a 7.

* Several large towns and cities are more than a third submerged by waters and debris.

* Some 215,000 people living in government shelters.

* Four million without power, a million with no water.

* Total insured loss could be up to $15bn, equity analysts covering the industry says.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments