Alex Hofford / EPA
A destroyed graveyard is seen in the earthquake and tsunami ravaged town of Natori, Japan on Monday.
Natori, a coastal town in Japan, was virtually wiped out by the earthquake and tsunami. Rescue workers began to arrive on Monday, but they found few people to rescue. NBC News’ Ian Williams is one of the few reporters to reach what is left of the coastal town. He spoke by phone on Monday.
What is the scene like?
We are in Natori, a coastal area, up the coast from Sendai. The area close to the coast is just a complete wasteland – and this is one of the worst hit areas in the vicinity. The wave wiped just about everything away.
What was interesting today was seeing some of the first rescue teams going into the worst-affected parts. There is nothing much left – the tsunami pretty much razed the entire area closest to the sea.
A couple of houses are still standing. One of them actually had a school bus literally wrapped around the wall that it was slammed into by the wave.
The people in Natori had about half an hour warning that the tsunami was coming after the quake hit. So there were alarms and everyone tried to get out. But there is only one narrow road that leads back out of the coastal part of town.
A lot of people did get out, but a lot were also caught up in the wave. Officials don’t know the precise number of dead; they said there are still a lot of bodies they haven’t yet been recovered.
One of the strange things about this disaster is that no place is as well prepared as Japan for this kind of natural disaster. In many respects they have been rehearsing for this for years – in terms of the building standards, in terms of preparedness for tsunamis. But when it struck, it was so violent that not even the best system in the world was able to respond sufficiently quickly.
Have you met any survivors?
Yes, we met a number of people today who were coming back in for the first time to see what remained of their homes. Because of the mad scramble to get out ahead of the wave, a lot of families were split up – so a lot of people were still looking for loved ones.
We met one woman who was looking for two brothers. She found one of them – but not the other. And we went with her when she returned to what was left of their house –which was just a few pieces of wall. She broke down when she saw that because it was the first time she had been back since the wave hit. She was continuing to search for her brother and hadn’t given up hope that he would be in one of the shelters. There have been several shelters set up around the area mainly in schools or gymnasiums.
We met another family of six who had been separated from their mother, but they found her in one of the shelters on Sunday. They returned to what was left of their house – which was one of the few still standing in their area. They were removing possessions, including photograph albums, which were some of the most valuable things they wanted to salvage.
There was one other unlikely survivor – a dog.
We were looking across one of the lakes left by the tsunami covered by burning debris when we saw what appeared to be a man carrying a dog. By the time we caught up with the man, he was joined by a woman who had the dog on a leash. She was really emotional and said, “I can’t believe it. I am so happy.”
The dog was called “May” – a girl. They lost her as they scrambled to leave town when the tsunami hit and they had just gone back today to look for her. There she was rustling around in the remains of their house. They don’t know how she survived. She looked pretty nervous – she was shaking – but she made it through the earthquake and the tsunami somehow.
We also met a few city officials from the area. They told us it was just impossible to say how many people they had lost because families had scattered and been divided. A lot of the bodies would have been swept out to sea. They reckoned it would be some time before they would have a full count of the number of dead.
They also told us they were facing quite a critical situation taking care of survivors who were staying in shelters.
This is what surprised me because we think of Japan as a rich first world country, but they said that they have a shortage of blankets, water and certain medicines. The total number of people displaced by the quake is about 450,000. There are also about another 80,000 who have been forced to move away from the nuclear power plants.
Alex Hofford / EPA
Search and rescue workers look for survivors in an earthquake and tsunami ravaged house in Natori, Japan on Monday. Click on the photo above to see a complete slideshow of the destruction in Japan.
What about the nuclear plants? Are people very nervous about them on top of everything else?
I think so. The Fukushima nuclear power plant is some distance from here. But people have been looking nervously at the images that have been played out endlessly on Japanese television of the explosions at the plants. The government is putting out lots of reassurances that this is not a Chernobyl, that the situation is under control, and that there is not going to be a major release of radio activity.
But I think there is a fair amount of skepticism here because over the years the nuclear industry in Japan has not always been terribly transparent and honest. As a result, a number of incidents in the industry over the years have not been reported or covered up. So I think the government is aware of that problem and are trying to make information available in a timely manner. But the experience in Japan over the years has left people a bit suspicious.
What about the rescue effort? Who are the rescue workers and how are they doing it?
They are all Japanese rescue workers from the local and national authorities. We saw them with dogs and heavy lifting equipment. They were working slowly and methodically around the buildings. Obviously, they have to be very careful because what remains standing in an area that’s largely been wiped from the map is very precarious and there are aftershocks all the time.
The dogs themselves have been trained to sniff for live bodies –but they didn’t find any of those today. They go around and periodically release the dogs to run up and down if there is any structure of a building left. Every now and again you see little bits of excitement when the dog appears to kind of perk up and then it loses interest again – just a false alarm.
When we arrived today there was a tsunami alert. There have been several of those. We were caught up in one yesterday with emergency vehicles wailing down the street. Saying, “Move out! Move now! Tsunami is coming!” Of course it didn’t.
But it’s a measure of just how jittery and anxious people here are. If there is any suggestion that more water could be on the way, it gets people moving toward higher ground.
It happened this morning again as well. Rescue efforts were stopped and then resumed again after lunch. Later in the day, there were a lot more emergency vehicles and a lot more teams out. But some areas were still inaccessible because of all the debris – mountains of wood, beams, just about everything.
You think of a tsunami as mountains of water coming ashore, but sometimes the water is the least of your problems. It’s everything else the water is carrying – like that bus we saw embedded in the roof of one of the buildings left standing.
I know you covered the tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004 and the devastating 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008. How does this compare to some of those other disasters you’ve covered?
It’s bad. In a sense you go to a country like China, Indonesia, India – countries that are not as rich as Japan – and you expect the death and injury figures you hear initially to be highly preliminary. You expect the figure to end up much higher as rescue workers get to remote places.
I think what has been so surprising about this is that even in a rich country like Japan, a country that was so well prepared, we are still struggling to reach some of the more difficult and inaccessible areas. And really, we still have no idea how many people have died. I think that the figures we are seeing now are at best guesstimates and will rise much higher.
It shows just how vulnerable even a country like Japan is to a violent act of nature like this.