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To honor the dead -- and living -- tsunami town will rebuild

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The fishing community of Minamisanriku was among Japan’s hardest hit towns when the earthquake and tsunami devastated its northeastern coast on March 11. And more than three months  after the disaster, city officials are still focused on clearing the mountain of debris left behind when the waves retreated. 

"We're not at the reconstruction stage," Kiyotake  Miura, head of the town’s disaster division, said Monday in the temporary city hall.

Take a tour of Minamisanriku with resident Takashi Watanabe. See the cleanup effort and hear about the ongoing damage to the local economy.

Nearly 60 percent of Minamisanriku’s homes (3,300 of 5,632) are gone. The land has sunk 2½ feet in places, and some 9 square kilometers (a little less than 3½ square miles) are now underwater at high tide.

The death toll is about 500, with 400 other missing and presumed dead. Some 4,700 of the 17,666 residents are living in shelters --  either inside the town or elsewhere. The government is rushing to build temporary housing to accommodate the displaced. It has completed 1,224 units so far and hopes to have 2,200 done by early August. But with so much debris piled up and the sunken parts of the town unusable, there is not a lot of space left for rebuilding.

Miura said that while the waves claimed sizeable portions of nearby cities like Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, the damage was far more extensive in Minamisanriku, which is located on Shizugawa Bay.   

"In  Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, buildings exist even though they were affected or flooded. But here, they are all gone, they are all washed away," Miura said.

So out of necessity, city officials are still focused on the cleanup, with 700,000 tons of debris to collect. It’s a monumental task, one made more challenging by a shortage of heavy equipment.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Nearly 60 percent of Minamisanriku's 5, 632 homes are gone. That's 3,300 lost to the wave.

"There is too much debris along the coast, not just this area, but all along the coast," Miura said. "We don't have enough excavators."

The pace of cleanup also was slowed by the search for bodies, which continued until  March 31.

Now that it has begun in earnest, the cleanup is providing work for many unemployed locals, 50 percent of whom worked in the idled fishing industry before the disaster.

The debris cleaners are separating wood from steel and concrete. The materials will be taken to land in Kesennuma city, in Motoyoshi town, near where we met Teruo and Katsuko Kano early in our trip.    

The town aims to complete the cleanup by March 31, 2012 -- the end of its fiscal year. It's not clear how the salmon fishing season, which runs from October to December and typically represents a fishing family's entire earnings for a year, will fare. The sluice gates linking the river to the sea were closed ahead of the tsunami and so far workers haven’t been able to reopen them.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Employees in the Public Works office of the temporary Minamisanriku City Office work the phones on Monday, June 13, 2011, in Minamisanriku, Japan.

But the town aims to have its reconstruction plan ready by September, Miura said, well before the last of the debris is gone.

"When the Chile tsunami hit back in 1960 this area was also largely affected, but we rebuilt this town," he said. "I don't think we cannot do it, I'm sure we can do it. We have to reconstruct the town for the people who died, as well, not just for us, but for the people who died."