You've read the numbers from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami slamming northern Japan—more than 15,000 dead, about 8,000 missing, and 300 miles of coastline affected. All in a matter of minutes.
But seeing firsthand the devastation wrought by this natural disaster is the only way to really appreciate its enormity.
Six Nebraskans, led the U.S. Meat Export Federation's Tokyo staff, visited a portion of the stricken region and participated in a food relief effort, one of many in the area, at a makeshift evacuation center north of the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. Other northern prefectures, or states, also were affected.
MEF staff members Takemichi Yamashoji and Susumu Harada escorted two Nebraska corn producers, John Willoughby of Wood River and Bill Schuster of Phillips; Bill Rhea III, a farmer and feeder from Arlington; Kelsey Pope, Nebraska Corn Board ag promotion coordinator; Kurt Tomasevicz, an Olympic bobsled gold medalist originally from Shelby ; and myself. Working alongside college students from Japan and other nations, and volunteers from Japanese organizations, the Nebraskans served 300 people rice and U.S. beef.
MEF conducts a Japan Relief and Recovery Effort, a free food distribution program, two to three times a week and has one of the largest such programs in the area. MEF collaborates with multiple non-profit organizations throughout Japan in its relief program. "They always love the American beef," says Takemichi, senior marketing director with MEF. "Survivors in this region had gone without much in the way of protein for two to three months, relying on rice and noodles only."
Fishing is a major industry in the region, but fishermen lost their boats, nets and other equipment and, because the coastline dropped more than a meter as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, the region's fishing industry may be permanently affected.
The evacuation center was a resort hotel opened by the owner, a jovial Japanese woman, to victims and evacuation workers. She intends to start up a promotion campaign soon to reopen the hotel in 2012, but for now she focuses only on survivors.
Kuniaki Shimizu, a popular Japanese TV personality and leader of one non-profit organization working with MEF, explained to the Nebraskans his interest in not only feeding the hungry but in supporting children who lost mothers or fathers or both. "I once asked a large group of children what question they would like to ask me," he says. "They responded, 'can you find my mom.'"
Kuniaki, who runs a campground far from this region, near Mt. Fuji, has brought many of these kids there for a couple weeks to get them away from the ravaged area. He also composed a song, popular now in Japan, about the children. It is called "Don't Leave Me Alone."
The damage itself is almost indescribable.
In the community of Minami Sanriku, streets have been cleared but nothing else remains but piles of rubble and the metal skeletons of buildings. We drove to the sea through a mountain pass perhaps one-half to one mile wide through which a gigantic wall of water roared. The initial wave came, then the water receded, continuing the mayhem. Then a second and third wave came.
We saw a four-story hospital a mile inland that's just a skeleton, with a fishing boat atop a ledge on the first floor. We say a three-story apartment building, a hollow shell with a car atop it. We saw twisted bodies of cars that were half or less their size, a pickup on a sidehill 200 feet up. Dead pine trees 40 to 50 feet up a hill due to the effects of salt water. Massive cement pilings from the shoreline tossed a mile inland like Legos. A four-story storm alert structure, a mile from the sea, with nothing but the antenna and steel frame remaining. A local woman is a heroin. She stood on the third floor yelling through the public loudspeaker warning people to get to higher ground. She stayed until the water swept her away.