Minamisanriku, Japan March 16, 2011
Tomeko Sato spent two agonising days searching for her daughter after the giant waves crashed ashore. They are now looking for 10 missing relatives in the wasteland they once called home. Some of them lived near the spot where Sato is standing in the Japanese fishing town of Minamisanriku, but all that remains to indicate there were ever any homes here in the muddy flood plain are concrete foundations. "I haven't been able to get in contact with them. I'm very worried about them," said the 54-year-old Sato, who lost her house in the disaster. "I was very surprised by the power of the tsunami... next time, I will live on the hill and hope it never happens again." Around half of the 17,000 people who once lived in Minamisanriku have been missing since the giant wall of water generated by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake -- the biggest ever recorded in Japan -- smashed into the coastal town. The surge obliterated nearly everything in its path for at least one kilometre (0.6 miles) inland. So far, 1,000 bodies have been recovered in the town, located in a seemingly sheltered valley on the country's northeast coast. But Takashi Takashita, commander of a fire and rescue unit from the western city of Kyoto, says about 8,000 people are still unaccounted for, and while hopes of finding survivors are nearly extinguished, he is not ready to give up. "The chances of finding people alive are slim, but we want to try to find missing people, not bodies," said Takashita. He then returned to his task -- using a golf club to prod a tangled clump of wooden debris, knotted with fishing nets and clothing. Behind him, a vast field littered with hundreds of similar piles stretches out into the distance. Rescue workers meticulously comb the muddy no-man's-land, but the area is so vast and the challenge of picking through the debris so great that Takeshita said teams would be searching for bodies for up to a week. While the ground is littered with the accumulated possessions of thousands of lives -- a mobile phone, wedding pictures and even a samurai sword -- there is no sign of any bodies in the area. The tsunami swept up buildings and cars with such force that most were pulverised. What was not destroyed as the wave poured into the town was hit as the deluge receded. Even houses on the hillside next to the town show signs of damage, and household items were washed up onto the higher ground. Takatoshi Shiraishi, a driver for the local hospital -- almost the only building in the entire area left standing -- spent his 69th birthday walking through the remains of his town. He said Minamisanriku's new sea defences -- built after a tsunami that struck decades ago -- had proved no match for the ferocity of the wall of water, which smashed through huge concrete walls as it thundered through town. "People thought they would be safe behind the barriers... But this time the tsunami was a lot longer and twice as powerful," Shiraishi said. "I remember that last time the tsunami came up to the city hall, so everybody thought that this time behind the building would be safe, but this wave came over the city hall." The building, which used to stand near the hospital, has vanished. At the local junior high school, which has been transformed into a temporary refuge for around 340 people, city hall worker Yasunori Yamauchi said he had had no information about how many of his colleagues were missing. "Fifty years ago, the tsunami was about 5.2 metres high and this time it was over 10 metres (30 feet). Some people thought it was safe on top of buildings but they were hit as well," Yamauchi said. earlier related report
One couple's battle to find each other, post-quake
Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) March 16, 2011 - Tsueko Takahashi, 56, has carved a dry path to her home over muddy wood panels, fallen utility poles and chunks of concrete. The trek is difficult but one she is grateful to be able to make.
When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck coastal Ishinomaki, she hurriedly bundled her 89-year-old mother into the car and sped towards higher ground in the centre of town and the paper mill where her husband Mikio works.
But Mikio had other ideas -- he rushed home to check on his family, but quickly found himself trapped on the upper floor of his home when the tidal surge flooded the lower level and aftershocks rumbled on for hours.
The couple would be separated for two nights, not knowing if the other had survived. Hundreds have been killed in the town and many others have been displaced.
"I spent the first night just looking out the window, really not thinking much," the 57-year-old husband told AFP. "I just thought to myself, 'If I wait here, my wife will come back'."
Coastal areas like Ishinomaki bore the brunt of Friday's disaster, as the giant waves smashed into coves and gathered pace.
The Takahashi family home faces a river in the remote northeastern port town -- a definite disadvantage.
"The tsunami had to have whirled around and moved sideways to hit this side of the river," said Mrs Takahashi.
As Mikio surveyed the initial damage to his home wrought by the quake, he looked outside and saw that the churning waves had swallowed up the bridge over the river and were headed straight for the house.
"It was bringing debris and pushing running cars with people inside," he said.
"Water quickly burst into the first floor of the house. While all this happened, aftershocks continued, and they were strong. It was horrifying."
The waters receded by nightfall, but Mikio was still stuck on the second floor, where he spent the night.
Meanwhile, Tsueko and her mother slept inside their car on the hill, and then they stayed at a friend's house the following night because the piles of rubble strewn everywhere by the tsunami were blocking her path home.
On Sunday, Tseuko decided it was time to fight her way back to her husband.
She first stepped onto a tilted pier now sitting atop the bridge. She then hopped onto a ferry leaning against it, and emerged from its broken window to climb down to the bridge.
On the bridge, she then walked by two broken houses, over giant heaps of pulp and forklift pallets from the paper mill, the broken wood of destroyed homes and eight vehicles piled up, nearly blocking the end of the bridge.
She then ducked under power lines dangling from broken utility poles.
At home, she taps on a piano that is flipped upside down in the living room -- with a dining table, chairs and a sofa perched on top of it to support the ceiling.
"How did this happen?" she said.
In their backyard, five flipped cars sit over what used to be Tsueko's herb garden.
"There was myoga ginger, wild parsley, grape trees, a maple tree... They are all buried under the debris," she said.
Mikio is more upbeat, but admits the future is uncertain.
"Our damage is nothing. I consider ourselves fortunate because there are so many others who are going through so much," he said.
"Luckily our relatives were fine. We have been running errands for them, so we haven't had time to think about what to do to rebuild our lives."
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