While people around the world watched anxiously the growing crisis at Japan’s nuclear power plants, piano tuner Atsufumi Sato’s attention was focused on finding at least one memento of his family’s life before a tsunami levelled their neighbourhood.
In the end, Mr Sato found two: a framed photograph taken by his mother and an old blue umbrella that had somehow been left behind by the wall of water that erased his apartment near the centre of the north-eastern port of Ofunato.
“This is all I can find of my home,” he said, picking up the two battered mementos and threading his way back across the wreckage of the town’s commercial district toward the school hall refugee centre where his family now lives.
Mr Sato’s return to the remains of his house on Tuesday came as authorities stepped up efforts to re-establish basic services in the worst affected towns and rescue teams from around the world arrived to help search the rubble.
Friday’s magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami. tsunami have devastated a string of settlements along Japan’s north-eastern coast. The official death toll hit 3,676 on Tuesday, while around 7,000 are missing and more than 500,000 others have been forced into temporary shelters.
State television reported on Tuesday the near-miraculous rescue of a woman in her 70s who had been trapped in her ruined home in Otsuchi in the prefecture of Iwate.
However, the more common tale was of recovery of the battered bodies of those killed when the tsunami, 10m high in places, smashed into the coast.
In Ofunato commercial and industrial districts the result was a jumbled mess of destroyed trucks, twisted steel building frames and wooden logs that the wave turned into lethal missiles capable of punching through walls.
Here and there, people searched among the wreckage for valuables.
Until Friday, Shizuo Tamura, a manager at Nippon Oil, had been counting down the days to his retirement at the end of the month. On Tuesday he was mourning two colleagues and digging out sodden files from a semi-collapsed office next to a petrol station that now has a sailing yacht sitting incongruously on roof.
“Now my last memories of work will be memories of this tsunami,” he said.
British rescue workers were also picking through the rubble – though with little hope of finding anyone alive.
“The earthquake damage is not really that bad … the main damage was from the tsunami,” said Mark Noblet, a member of the UK International Search and Rescue team. “It’s pretty difficult to see areas here where people could have survived if they were trapped in the floods.”
Authorities were able to restore power and limited mobile phone coverage to some neighbourhoods in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, a nearby town that was almost destroyed by the tsunami.
Fuel shortages remained acute. A few kilometres inland, residents waited from as early as 3am outside one petrol station – only to be disappointed when police told them that its fuel was reserved for emergency vehicles.
“We can’t search properly for the missing because there’s no petrol,” said Kazumi Sato, a local nursery worker. “I’ve been looking for my family and friends by foot and on bicycle … I don’t know if they are alive or dead.”
While the disappointed drivers were upset at the lack of official information about fuel distribution and were vocally critical of the petrol station manager, the general mood of survivors in the area remained one of phlegmatic stoicism.
To outside observers, the government’s response to Friday’s tremor has been impressive. More than 22,000 people have been rescued, according to the UN. Road repairs were launched almost immediately and large numbers of police and Self Defence Force personnel are now working in the disaster zone.
The effort appears a marked improvement on the slow and confused manner with which the state responded to the 1995 earthquake in the western city of Kobe, although this time authorities have been helped by limited damage from the quake itself and the relatively small areas subject to the devastating effect of the tsunami.
Still, many survivors remain in acute need of more and better supplies of water, food and warmth against the area’s chilly spring nights.
Mr Sato said SDF forces arrived at the weekend and distributed water. However, evacuees were disappointed when the troops failed to keep a pledge to return with more on Monday.
“There’s no information,” said Mr Sato, who also acts as a volunteer neighbourhood organiser. “When people ask us why the (military) didn’t come, we have no way to explain it.”
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