KESENNUMA, Japan | Around the Shark Museum in downtown Kesennuma, a coastal city of 73,000 residents about 150 miles north of Tokyo, it looks like the tsunami hit yesterday – not 18 days ago.
On a sunny afternoon, a few survivors wearing masks and gloves sift through the debris of what used to be their homes or shops. Twisted poles, jagged beams and tossed ships remain after a series of tsunamis reorganized civilization into piles of chaos.
Amid the stench of rotting corpses and more than two-weeks-old garbage, it’s hard for the disoriented, the drunken and the homeless not to faint and fall over in the street.
“Most people are still too scared to even come down here and look at this,” says Takeshi Utsumi, whose downtown electronics shop was swept away along with most everything else in the low-lying half of Kesennuma in Miyagi prefecture. “We can’t even begin to think about rebuilding our lives here.”
While politicians in Japan’s parliamentary Diet in Tokyo debate how to deal with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, many survivors in this coastal city still are just trying to find food, water and warm blankets.
Most of Kesennuma’s fishing fleet lies at the bottom of the channel or sits atop cars and homes inland, but a lone fish seller offers neatly packaged seafood left over from his refrigerator. Only two convenience stores have reopened. At one 7-Eleven, half-empty shelves bear little more than chewing gum, canned coffee, rice balls in seaweed and magazines, but none of Japan’s beloved variety of healthy snacks or obento meals – a kind of boxed lunch of Japanese cuisine.
A walk through a dark, deserted street near the inoperable train station reveals only a single open shop, Umi-Hiko, where Kazuo Takahashi serves a limited menu of food and sake to five customers lucky enough to live on high ground on the city’s unscarred hillside.
“It will be a long time before they can remove the garbage everywhere,” says Mr. Takahashi, serving some yakitori chicken on skewers and a delicious homemade soup of fungi and white daikon radish.
“It will take 10 years to recover, not five. This has never been a rich part of Japan. We don’t have the money and the energy to rebuild. Many people will leave here and never come back. They will find work in Tokyo or Nagoya or other big cities down south, and forget about this place,” the shop owner says.
Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said Monday that the amount of waste created by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in his prefecture is estimated at 15 million to 18 million tons – about 23 years’ worth of regular garbage – and that figure does not include automobiles and dirt. Officials in Miyagi plan to map out a basic policy for disposing of the waste within three years.
Mr. Utsumi, the electronics shop owner, says he can’t even begin to think about his future in Kesennuma until the government removes the debris in the low-lying half of the city, which also was gutted by fire. “Many of my customers are asking me to rebuild the shop because they need somewhere to fix their electronics. I don’t have the energy to do that right now,” he says. “I’m afraid of setting up shop in the same place. Someday another tsunami will come. I don’t want to think about that place.”
In many devastated areas along the northeastern coast, soldiers and municipal crews have at least cleared streets of debris to allow rescuers to drive through in search of survivors. Yet, as the remaining residents of Kesennuma say, it will be a long time before a massive clean-up begins – and nobody knows what has become of the live sharks at the museum.