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Letter from Sendai: A dispatch from the disaster zone

A sofa sits among cars tossed by the tsunami in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai
A sofa sits among cars tossed by the tsunami in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai
SENDAI (TR) – I cannot recall ever attempting to take gasoline from a car by sucking through a rubber hose. But on Monday last week there I was, standing in a dirt parking lot while contemplating proper tube diameter to access the tank of our Toyota Belta sedan in the town of Kawasaki, a small suburb just west of disaster-ravaged Sendai.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that occurred off the coast of this city in Miyagi Prefecture at precisely 2:46 p.m. three days earlier set off a string of events that the city and its citizens are still struggling to overcome.

One of the more crucial concerns is the shortage of gasoline. The destination for the fuel pumped by mouth was a van carrying a group from the local Sendai-Finland Wellbeing Center.

“It’s a desperate situation,” said Juha Teperi, a lanky Finn with flowing brown hair who was set to assume the position of head of the center’s R&D Unit.

Juha, his wife and two others had purchased the most fuel available under the ongoing rationing — enough, they hoped, to reach Yamagata, about a 30-minute drive into the mountains. But they were also the interview target of Finnish television channel MTV3 and Petri Saraste, the broadcaster’s senior Asia correspondent, who hired me to work as his assistant.

MTV3 correspondent Petri Saraste.
MTV3 correspondent Petri Saraste

While he worked his camera and microphone, I quickly realized that the situation was no better for tiny Kawasaki. The friendly proprietor of the nearby Hyotan izakaya, curious about the media commotion — and one television station from Finland in a burg that can be navigated in a few blinks would certainly qualify — confirmed what was obvious to anyone viewing the convenience stores with their doors propped open: The city had no electricity.

“We have water, but if you go further, that gets tougher,” he added, waving his hand in the direction of the mountains to the west.

Down the road in Sendai, a city of 1 million people, damage to structures due to the quake was hardly perceptible. Some residences had lost roof tiles in many places, but I didn’t see signs of substantial problems to larger buildings. It was clear, however, that the nerves of those who experienced the shaking had been highly frayed.

“We were in an underground shopping mall,” recalled Juha. “Very quickly, the shaking became extremely harsh. Wall coverings started falling to the floor and concrete dust blew into the air. There was no real panic, but hundreds of people were huddling together and screaming a bit.”

The city was subsequently crippled by a lack of basic utility services, explained Jutta Immanen-Poyry, who presently holds the position Juha is in the process of assuming. Those who want to leave are trying, added the director, “but the lines for buses out of town are all packed.”

Due to the lack of gas and electricity services, Juha and his wife moved out of their hotel and into Jutta’s residence after the quake hit.

A rescue team in Wakabayashi Ward
A rescue team in Wakabayashi Ward

Our driver was Roberto De Vido, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture. He next took us to the Koriyama Junior High School, where the gymnasium was being used as an evacuation center. The mood was calm and subdued, but people were surprisingly willing to discuss their experiences during the quake.

“I didn’t recognize what was happening,” said Fumio, 86, seated in a wheelchair, adding that her gas and electricity lines had been cut. She then broke into tears.

Fumio and her daughter were among the roughly 600 people (men, women and children of all ages) who had taken shelter on the gymnasium’s wood floor, beneath the basketball hoops and nets. Evacuees were offered food, such as warm milk and rice — some of which had been taken from a home economics class — and a place to sleep. A flat-panel television was broadcasting news of the unfolding catastrophe, which by then was focused on the potential meltdown of reactors within the Fukushima nuclear plants.

Buildings aside, the streets of Sendai did reveal plenty of anguish. Blaring sirens from emergency vehicles were not unusual, and lines for food from grocery stores, only open on a limited basis, filled sidewalks.

Gasoline supplies had been decimated since oil refineries in the region were shut down due to fires. The stations that were open for business (and there were not that many) had cars waiting for blocks. At one JA station, portable drills were being used to spin the pumping mechanism and deliver the fuel in lieu of electricity. Next to the snake of vehicles at the entrance, dozens of pedestrians with red cans waited patiently. The station manager was allotting each customer a maximum of 20 liters.

In the Koriyama Junior High School Gymnasium, volunteers receive their assignments.
In the Koriyama Junior High School Gymnasium

But the situation was unpredictable: About an hour after I visited the station it was deserted and its entrance roped off as it had run out of fuel.

The destruction wreaked by the subsequent series of tsunami waves has been extensively documented, but its real impact could be felt up close. In Wakabayashi Ward, a few kilometers off the coast, hundreds of mangled cars, single sandals, soggy dolls and tatami mats, uprooted trees — even a vending machine and a sofa — were scattered in ditches, on streets and atop farmland.

Teruko Omiya, a middle-aged woman in a flu mask, stood beside her car in the driveway of an acquaintance’s house a few hundred meters beyond where the tsunami’s devastation stopped. She waved her hand in the direction of a black vehicle parked in front of the residence. “The tsunami reached just above the tire,” she said, speaking quickly and pulling at her mask.

The area was amazingly orderly given the scope of the destruction. Many local people heading to and from their residences rode bicycles through the debris past police officers and rescue personnel.

I asked Teruko if she would feel safe in the future in this area, where substantial aftershocks from the quake had become routine.

“We can’t take this kind of thing even once more,” she said. “It’s just not possible.”

When I had viewed the devastation live on NHK from my embarrassingly safe office in Tokyo on the day the disaster struck, one of the most haunting images was seeing Sendai Airport largely submerged. We drove south 15 minutes to find that the water had mostly receded, but the scene that unfolded along the airport’s muddy entrance road was just as surreal. Dented cars were strewn about the parking lot of a convenience store and, off to the side, private planes were mangled and suspended in trees.

Outside the Civil Aviation College, a man in white glasses and outfitted in a heavy blue parka approached me and nonchalantly offered in English, “Hello, how are you?”

Line for fuel at JA station in Wakabayashi Ward
Line for fuel at JA station in Wakabayashi Ward

His name was Noriyoshi Takeuchi, a private pilot who had most recently used the airport in January, as a passenger. “This is simply unbelievable,” said Noriyoshi, whose aunt and uncle in Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture to the north, are missing. “It is a real-life nightmare.”

Closer to the terminal the situation became more depressing. The entire parking lot was a debris-strewn wasteland. Mound after mound of plastic, twisted metal and vegetation covered what once were parking bays. A Nissan Rent A Car office had vehicles and wood planks piled high around its advertising sign. More cars were sunk at multiple angles in a nearby canal.

Roberto, who had gone inside the terminal, reported that the second floor of the building appeared untouched by the quake and tsunami. Security checkpoints were open to walk through, passengers’ luggage had been abandoned, and the hands of a clock were frozen at 3:59 p.m., ostensibly the time the tsunami shut down the building’s power.

Near a series of fuel storage tanks, it was an eerily quiet scene. Only a few security cars could be seen coming and going nearby.

“We need help,” Noriyoshi added. “There is not enough manpower in Japan. People living along the coast are scared of another tsunami, and nuclear reactors are in danger of leaking radiation.”

Back in Kawasaki, the gasoline- through-the-tube attempt failed. (We assumed the angle of the bend in the pipe leading to the Toyota’s tank was too sharply curved.) Instead, we handed the group a few bottles of water and wished them the best. A phone mail sent to Petri later revealed that nine hours later they arrived safely back in Tokyo via Yamagata and then Niigata.

It was a bit of luck that they ever reached that parking lot in the first place. Jutta had had the option of taking the pair to nearby Matsushima, one of Japan’s top sightseeing destinations, located on the now ravaged coast, on Thursday or Friday. They chose Thursday, the day before the quake.

“I wanted to show them someplace beautiful,” she said.

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 22 issue of The Japan Times.