TOKYO – The tsunami raced through the town at eight meters per second, the speed of a gold-medal sprinter. The wave’s height reached 15 meters, towering above even the highest pole-vault bars. Ships were heaved onto hills, and cars floated like boats. After the wave passed, a chaotic mountain of debris was all that was left of Kamaishi, Japan’s oldest steel-manufacturing town, in Iwate prefecture. It looked like the aftermath of the firebombing of Tokyo, or like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs fell.
Similar scenes can be found throughout the Tōhoku region, along Japan’s northeastern Sanriku Coast. For example, in the quiet rural city of Rikuzentakata, with a population of 23,000, it is believed that 5,000 of its 8,000 households disappeared in the disaster. The only buildings that remain standing are the town hall and one supermarket. Sendai airport, near the coast in Miyagi Prefecture, now looks more like a seaport.