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3/11: The disaster that haunts Japan

Art Thiel in Japan: Members of the Mariners and Oakland A's come to the devastated community of Ishinomaki and saw how shocking the toll remains. A small gesture, the visit was far better than doing nothing.

The tsunami that struck an elementary school in Ishinomaki also slammed cars into the building. The explosions ignited fires throughout the bulding.

The tsunami that struck an elementary school in Ishinomaki also slammed cars into the building. The explosions ignited fires throughout the bulding. Ben VanHouten/Seattle Mariners

ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Busing swiftly through the detritus of devastation is hardly a good way to get a feeling for the loss, in the space of a few hours, of about 20,000 people from a town of 160,000.

But then, what is a good way to comprehend the unimaginable?

Major League Baseball made an attempt Tuesday, creating a tightly choreographed gesture with manager Eric Wedge and some players from the Mariners and Oakland A’s on an off-day before the start of the regular season between the teams Wednesday (March 28)in Tokyo.

At a brief baseball clinic for youngsters, MLB and the players union pledged $500,000 to help restore the town's municipal ballpark in this old port city of fishing, whaling and paper mills.

The stadium was far enough inland to be damaged “only” by an earthquake so potent it shifted the earth on its axis. At the Pacific shoreline of this town five driving hours north of Tokyo — the time halved via bullet train taken to nearby Sendai by the baseballers and a media entourage — an epic tsunami launched by the quake scraped from the shorelines much of the civilization that made its living from the water that killed many of them.

The Japanese touchstone for the day is “3/11,” an echo of a disaster more political. This was an event known by seismologists to be coming. But the where, when, and how was not knowable or comprehensible. The world’s most prepared nation was unprepared.

The consequences of the national disaster will ripple for decades. More than 100 miles south, the simultaneous damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant not only spread radiation into the air and sea for miles, it has shut down the Japanese nuclear industry. By May, all 54 plants will be closed, at least temporarily, to undergo stress tests in the wake of the failure.

One-third of the nation’s energy came from nuclear sources. If a hot summer induces more use of air conditioning, the forecast is for a national 10 percent shortfall, meaning industrial shutdowns and rolling blackouts.

Here in Ishinomaki, the human toll is nearly indescribable. The bodies of the 16,000 confirmed dead and 4,000 listed as missing are no longer present, but there lingers a haunting physical reminder.

The two buses bearing the athletes, officials and media slowly rolled past acres of car bodies stacked three deep, almost neatly. The law says a car cannot be disposed of without notification to the owner.

What if the owner cannot be found? A year later, the law finally is being changed.

A gruesome shell remains standing near the highway. When the tsunami rolled into town at 3:40 in the afternoon, nearly three stories high, some of the students in the three-story Kadonowaki elementary school (video) fled to higher ground behind the main building. Others went to to the top floor in the mistaken belief they would be safe.

The water carried with it dozens of cars that slammed into the school building and began exploding. Trapped, children perished in the blazes, so many the authorities won't release the number.

As much as has been cleaned up, as much as some normalcy has been restored to more inland areas, dozens and dozens of buildings sit vacant and dilapidated, often surrounded by bare ground where owners could afford to have the remains of their shattered homes hauled away. In Japan, the government is responsible only for clearing roads.

Only last month did the government's Reconstruction Agency begin its work along the 150 miles of beach that took the brunt of one of nature's most colossal rages. The pace for many, especially those living in the sort of temporary housing that became familiar to Americans watching the sorry saga on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, infuriates.

"They have done a great job of neatly piling the debris and tucking it under tarps, but otherwise I see little progress," Jeff Kingston, head of the Asian studies program at Temple University's Tokyo campus, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "Partly it's political paralysis and partly bureaucratic indecision about what to rebuild, how to consolidate, and the problem of that rubbish."


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