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The sea gives and then takes away

Japan, April 6, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Malka Older/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A man stands next to a boat swept onto Kesennuma harbor by the tsunami. Photo: Malka Older/Mercy Corps

The ferry stop, which was once a two-story building — doubtless with restaurants and gift shops — had been reduced to a hollow shell, draped with plastic and refuse and a station wagon.

With my colleagues Ken and Yuko from Peace Winds Japan, I was going on an assessment of Oshima, an island of about 3,000 inhabitants not far from the ruined harbor of Kesennuma. But we were clearly not going on the regular ferry.

We drove back around the harbor, and found a small tent that had been set up in place of the ferry stop. There was a boat about to leave, with a capacity of about 40 people, and we hurried to get on along with our fellow passengers: families, couples, taciturn old men and somber young men.

As we pulled away, I stepped out of the cabin to watch the shore. The natural harbor that makes Kesennuma famous for its seafood funneled the tsunami, and there was destruction on every side. The huge fish market, though still standing, was empty and filled with trash. (I would later see that next to the fish market was a shark museum, now closed indefinitely).

Huge processing plants, cold-storage warehouses, and fuel tanks were overturned, crushed or ripped into pieces. Cheerful squid cartoons waved from the remains of a building which, I assumed, had once been used to process squid innards (a common beer accompaniment). We passed the floating hulks of burned-out ships, and saw others aground on either shore. We saw billions of dollars of damage during a twenty-minute boat ride.

The margins of Oshima had been pounded into rubble, which the American navy was helping to sift through and clean up. Their help was sorely needed and, we were told when we had hiked up a couple of hills to the town center, much appreciated. Oshima was still without electricity and, even with two boats going back and forth to Kesennuma, the transportation situation was extremely difficult. The worst part of the situation, however, was the damage to livelihoods.

Oshima survives mainly through aquaculture: seaweed, oysters and scallops. A little over a year ago, a tsunami from the Chile earthquake destroyed the cultivation areas, although it did little damage on shore. After tightening their belts for a year, the seafood cultivators on Oshima were just hoping to see the results of a new crop when this tsunami hit, destroying not only their hard work but also houses and lives.

“We just don’t know what we’ll do,” a fisherman named Tanaka san told us. “People want to start again but…two years in a row without income, it’s very difficult. And we’ve lost machinery and supplies. We don’t know what to do besides oysters and scallops but…it’s hard to start again after this. I think everyone wants to. But I don’t know what we’ll do.”

There was one bright note in Oshima’s story: they had lost relatively few people to the tsunami. According to the town representative who spoke to us, this was because of a traditional legend that one thousand years ago there was a tsunami huge enough to swamp the island, dividing it into three. Fortunately, that story helped to impress on people the importance of running for the hills whenever there is an earthquake. Hopefully other people living near the ocean can learn from their example.