Hideto Miura last saw his white Honda on March 11, when he parked it near the fish market and ran on foot to escape a tsunami that killed many people stuck inside their vehicles in an epic traffic jam.
KESENNUMA, JAPAN—Hideto Miura is having trouble finding his car, a white Honda.
He last saw it on March 11, when he parked it near the fish market and ran to escape the tsunami that killed many people stuck inside their vehicles in an epic traffic jam. He figures it’s somewhere, among the wreckage in an 8-kilometre swath between the sea and the highway, where police say at least 1,200 may have died, and perhaps 40,000 or more lost homes and land they might never occupy again.
Wearing rubber boots, gloves and a white mask — like everybody else in the disaster zone — he sifts through debris, looking for any signs of a white car. He finds white cars crushed under ships, dangling atop houses and train tracks, and leaking gas and oil into the Okawa River, where seagulls sit atop submerged vehicles they use as islands. But none of the thousands of trashed white cars is his. “The problem is, in Kesennuma almost everybody was driving a white car,” he says.
Like Miura, thousands of survivors across northeastern Japan are looking for their cars, a prized possession in rural Japan, which had limited bus and train services even before the disaster. Farther south, thousands of cars were washed onto the runways of Sendai airport, and many ended up in the Pacific Ocean. In Hachinohe city, at the northern end of the disaster zone, locals say hundreds of cars are submerged in the shallow, narrow channel, blocking access to the port for badly needed supply ships.
A U.S. Navy crew of 42 divers from Pearl Harbor arrived on board USS Safeguard last weekend to begin pulling up cars, fishing trawlers, boats, and houses that have been impeding access to the vital Hachinohe port, says Master Diver Jon Klukas. “This is going to be a primary port for aid deliveries because the roads around here are in relatively decent condition,” said Klukas, a native of Milwaukee, Wisc., stationed normally stationed in Singapore. “It’s really important to clear this channel and open up the harbour.”
Two hundred kilometres south, in Kesennuma, a city of 70,000, it might be weeks or months before salvage ships can begin pulling vehicles, ships and other objects out of the clogged harbour. For now, Miura just wants to see his vehicle one last time, before he moves to Tokyo or Osaka to look for work.
He says he regrets leaving it on the street near his seaside workplace, instead of somewhere on higher ground, as Yuki Onodera did. Working at a coffee shop near the portside Shark Museum, Onodera wisely parked her car on the fourth level of a parking lot, which survived the 10-metre high onslaught of water. “After the quake, I tried to drive away but I saw a big traffic jam up ahead, because everybody was trying to flee at the same time. So I parked my car and ran by foot,” she says, standing outside her black minivan. “Many died in their cars stuck in traffic. People who could run or cycle away survived, but many in cars did not.”
Like many families and workers looking for cars and other valuables, Miura says he was too afraid of the sea at first to come down from evacuation shelters in schools and town halls perched on bluffs above the disaster zone. But with no job and nothing else to do, he decided to brave the nightmarish Nainowaki area, where he used to carve up sushi at a seaside fish abattoir.
Though accustomed to blood and fish guts at work, Miura says it took time to get over the fear barrier, the smell of corpses, and the throat-burning acrid air of homes and vehicles charred by towering fires which burned out of control long after the tsunami subsided on the cold night of March 11. “I’m only afraid at night now,” he says, “because it’s perfectly dark, and full of ghosts.”
He says he never expects to drive his car again, and insurers won’t cover losses due to earthquakes of tsunamis. But he at least wants some memorabilia, such as the licence plate. He gets encouragement from Ryuichi Saito, who found his car smashed into a house a few kilometres from where he parked it. “I just bought this last year,” says Saito, unscrewing the plates and taking the insurance papers from the dashboard of his Nissan hatchback. “I spent most of my savings on it, and now it’s worth nothing. But at least I can keep the plate.”
After a few hours of searching, Miura does find some wheels — a bicycle, nestled inside a pile of debris outside a flooded elementary school. With only one flat tire, it’s still useable. “At least it will be faster than walking,” he says, “especially if there’s another tsunami.”