Chuichi Sato heard the loudspeaker warning of the wave heading toward the town of Minamisanriku even before the shaking from the earthquake stopped. The 65-year-old bundled his wife and son into their car and told them to speed to higher ground while he shut the house.
“I thought the car would be faster,” said the retired Japanese truck driver, standing yesterday in front of one of hundreds of bare concrete foundations where 13 days ago there were single-story homes. “The roads were chaos as everyone fled at the same time.”
That was the last Sato saw of his family, who never arrived at the meeting point atop a hill he reached by bicycle. Instead he watched as the water surged inland, swallowing hundreds of cars that were stuck in traffic.
“We didn’t leave our homes naked,” he said in tears. “But it feels like we’ve got nothing left.”
In a section of the town near the water, only three structures have remained intact, including a supermarket and an apartment block. The hospital is gutted up to the fourth floor, higher than the 7.3 meter- (24-foot) maximum height of the tsunami offshore reported by the Japan Meteorological Agency.
Waves in one town may have reached 23.6 meters when they struck land, according to a study by Japan’s Port and Airport Research Institute.
“They’re not going to rebuild here,” he said surveying the damage. “Anybody with any money is going to build on higher ground. For those without any money it won’t be in their hands.”
At dusk, as temperatures dropped to freezing, Sato stood in front of the concrete foundations, wrapped in a thick brown jacket. He spoke with a woman, a former neighbor, as they tried to pinpoint the location of their obliterated homes.
“I thought it was this one,” he said, gesturing to one of the water-filled holes. “Look,” she countered, pointing to a ramp that provides an identifying marker. “That one’s yours.”
Sato is now living in one of three schools converted into shelters, a refuge he found after spending the first night huddled in the cold on a hill with other townspeople. He and hundreds of others in the makeshift lodging haven’t bathed since the March 11 quake, he said, and they are surviving on rice balls, which have become more plentiful, and a bottle of water a day.
“We’ve got nowhere else to go,” he said.
He has visited the town’s other shelters searching for his family. After relief workers and members of the country’s self-defense forces cleared a path through the debris, he made his way down to the general location of his former home.
He’s gone there every day for the past three days but his family is still missing. He holds little hope, he said, of finding them alive.
Sato’s wife and son are among the 16,501 people who were still missing as of 3 p.m. today, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. The toll from the disaster rose to 9,737.
Many of those unaccounted for are from Minamisanriku, where two days after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake local officials said they couldn’t locate about 10,000 residents, more than half the population. Over 300,000 Japanese remain homeless, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Because of the devastation, many overseas search-and-rescue teams headed to Minamisanriku, a fishing and farming town. The foreign teams included a 72-member group from Australia and a team from Doctors Without Borders, who first reached the destruction by helicopter, General Director Filipe Ribeiro said by phone yesterday.
While the government has reconnected power to about 90 percent of the quake-affected areas, according to the UN report, in the low-lying areas of Minamisanriku there is nothing to connect to. Parts of the town near the sea where the wave came ashore are clean even of debris. Several kilometers inland there are smashed cars and 10-meter long fishing boats.
“There is nothing really to say about this town anymore,” Sato said.