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The devastation of a town defeated by nature

By Andrew Buncombe

Two days before the massive tsunami roared in over the coastline of north-eastern Japan, Kit Miyamoto was delivering a lecture in Tokyo about the challenge of defending communities against earthquakes.

Yesterday, the Japanese-American structural engineer was ambling along the dock of this devastated port and gazing in no small wonder at a fishing boat – the Miojin Maru – that had been lifted out of the sea and left there. It was a reminder, if one were needed, of just what he spoke of during his lecture. "I have been up and down the coast surveying the damage," said Mr Miyamoto. "The damage has been great. I think we have become too arrogant – we rely too much on technology."

Mr Miyamoto had been dispatched by the Tokyo Institute of Technology to assess the damage along the north-eastern coast, and review which measures had been effective against the force of the mighty wave, and which had not. As it was, there could barely have been a better aide-mémoire for his theories than this shattered port city where a minimum of 350 people lost their lives and where hundreds are still missing.

"What worked here and elsewhere was the early warning system. I think it saved more than 100,000 lives along the coast because it gave people an extra 20 or 30 minutes," he said. "The cement buildings also did well. Very few buildings here were damaged by the quake itself, and most of those destroyed by the tsunami were wooden buildings. Also, the sea wall did not do well."

The port of Kesennuma is famed throughout Japan as an important centre for landing tuna and shark fin. The area around the dock is lined with factories and production plants, and the heritage-styled street lamps close to the dock carry the crest of a gently curling fish. But the narrow harbour, whose deep water has for decades allowed ships to dock here and has helped bring wealth and prosperity, was also a curse; when the wave roared in last week, its force was further compressed by the mouth of the bay, intensifying its destructive power. A number of gas facilities were turned over, igniting a vast fire that swept through part of the town.

Many of the dead in this community of 75,000, said Mr Miyamoto, were those who took too long to get into their cars to try and drive away. As it was, they found themselves caught in traffic, and when the tsunami arrived there was nowhere to go. The vehicles have been abandoned, stranded where they were left by the waves.

Yoshio Susuki and his wife Tse Ne Ko got into their car when they heard the early warning last Friday afternoon, but they drove very quickly. Before the queues of cars had created gridlock on the steep and narrow streets, they managed to drive to their home, on a hill overlooking the bay.

"We have a house on the hill. We were up high. We left before the jam. We drove quickly," said the 66-year-old Mr Susuki, who works at a local hospital.

This was not the first time he had experienced a tsunami; when he was 18, an earthquake in Chile, on the other edge of the Pacific Ocean, triggered a wave that swept in here along the north-eastern coast of Japan. It was in the aftermath of that wave that sea defences were built. But the tsunami of the early 1960s was nothing compared to that of last week, said Mrs Susuki. This was something utterly different.

"I think this has eliminated everything. The ships are gone, the markets are gone, the factories are gone. This was the number one port for tuna," she said. "It's all lost; it's all gone. We have to rebuild everything. I have lost an in-law and my husband has lost three employees. That is who we are looking for."

Quite how many were killed by the tsunami and the subsequent fire is unclear. The latest statement released by the local authority says that 352 people have been confirmed dead, while 343 are reported missing. But many in Kesennuma – a happy, close-knit community according to one local – believe the number of those still unaccounted for is much larger and may reach into several thousand.

Those who survived simply got out of the way of the water. On the dockside, silent but for the screech of seagulls and the occasional scuff of rubber boats on the road as people wandered among their wrecked homes, Ryoji Sugawala, a hospital employee, cycled past with a friend. "When the tsunami came, I went up a high building," he said.

It was not hard to see why so many died. One part of the town has been flattened; a huge container ship is among the crushed debris of wooden homes. There are signs of scorch marks and burning – evidence of the fire that swept across the bay. "It must have been a nightmare," said Mr Miyamoto.

At the offices of the local authority, located on higher ground, officials have made lists of those who have been found alive and been taken to hastily constructed refugee shelters. One man, Kimio Ondera, came to check the notice boards for a friend, a university professor from the city of Sendai who had been unable to contact his parents. He had been told they were in a shelter in a school, but could not make contact. "I have been coming here for three days but I cannot find any information about them," said Mr Ondera. "I can understand the professor. I do not live with my parents either. I can understand how he feels."

The refugees are not having an easy time. Shortages of food, water and petrol are adding to their miseries. Local people are perplexed and angry as to why the government has not been able to bring in supplies more quickly and in greater scale.

Mr Miyamoto knew about the communities here. Born in Tokyo, as a boy he came with his family to the beaches on holiday. When he was 18, his family emigrated to the US. He trained as a structural engineer and established his own business in Davis, California.

Now he was back, stunned and awed by the power of the ocean, assessing the damage done to the communities he had visited as a child. "I think the Japanese feel defeated by nature," he said. "We are always trying to beat nature. But we have to try and learn to live with it."

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