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I visited Kesennuma in northern Japan on June 4 and 5. The city had been particularly hard-hit by the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake, the subsequent tsunami, and the major fires that followed. The enormous power of the tsunami, especially, had demonstrated to people all over the world how twenty-first-century human civilization hardly stands a chance against the destructive potential of nature.

I was on a two-week visit to see family in Japan. My brother had been asked by the Japanese government to build temporary housing for tsunami victims in Kesennuma and he suggested that I accompany him on a trip to the building sites. I quickly agreed; as a member of the department of environmental health at the School of Public Health, I was very interested to see the aftermath of the natural disasters for myself.

Kesennuma is located on the southern part of the Sanriku Coast, long renowned for its scenic beauty and deep, jagged inlets (formations that geologists call “ria”). Near one of the three largest fishing grounds in the world, the city is also famous for its fishing industry, the most productive in a seafood-loving country. Kesennuma’s other major industry is shipbuilding; on March 11 many ships were in port for repair.

The March 11 disasters upended this once-vibrant economic scene.

When I arrived in Kesennuma on June 4, nearly two months after the earthquake and tsunami, the port area where the tsunami had struck hardest was still buried in rubble. I was surrounded on all sides by enormous mountains of debris, composed of everything from small personal items to the wreckage of large ships. Dump trucks were the main sight on Kesennuma’s temporary dirt roads. With traffic lights still not working in a large part of the city, personnel from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and volunteers with face-masks used flags to direct lines of traffic. The eastern side of the port, where oil tanks had been lined up along the dock site, was thoroughly burned, due to the effects of massive oil spillage from tanks knocked over by the tsunami. A lonely sign for “Urashima Elementary school” stood out clearly against the rubble, the school building nowhere in sight. A feeling of horror slowly washed over me as we drove through the disaster site that quiet afternoon.

The center of the Japanese fishing industry, Kesennuma port had been lined with refrigeration-equipped facilities to store the huge catch brought in by local fishermen. The tsunami entirely obliterated these facilities and the city was filled with the pungent odor of rotting fish. Sanitation will obviously pose a major challenge for Kesennuma, especially with Japan’s sweltering midsummer approaching. The city is already reporting an unusually high number of flies this year, which signals a worrisome possibility of infectious diseases spreading in the area.

That night my brother and I stayed in a hotel near the port. The hotel had survived the tsunami because it was located on high ground, but during my stay the lights were dimmed in order to save energy, and the toilets next to the main lobby were closed because of the nonfunctioning sewage system. The hotel’s guests were mostly volunteers or carpenters who had come to help in the clean-up effort or to build temporary housing for the thousands of residents left homeless.

On the morning of June 5, we left Kesennuma traveling south towards the city of Minami-Sanriku on Rt 45, the major national highway running along the Sanriku Coast. As we drove, we often needed to take detours because parts of the highway had been destroyed. Repair work for Rt 45 was underway, but the railroad running parallel to it (the Kesennuma Line of Japan Railways) was in tatters, and it seemed that little if any attempt had been made to rebuild it. The destruction I saw along the way was shocking: without exception, no coastal village, town, or city below a certain elevation had been spared. In some cases, the particular shape of the bays and coves had served to carry the deadly tidal waves surprisingly far inland.  The extent to which buildings, roads, and property were displaced and destroyed was clear evidence that these manmade structures were no match for the tsunami.

By afternoon we arrived in Minami-Sanriku, on Shizukawa Bay. Before March 11, it had been a beautiful resort town surrounded by breathtaking white beaches, tiny charming islands, and rugged inlets, typical of the Sanriku Coast. Now nothing remains of Minami-Sanriku other than mountains of rubble. Over half of the population is still missing and presumed dead. The deaths in this town alone are estimated to comprise a very significant portion of the tsunami’s total death toll. On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, an entire town of 20,000 people disappeared from the face of the earth. 

I visited only a few localities near Kesennuma during those two days, but as all we know, the tsunami laid waste to much of the coastline of Japan’s northern Tohoku region, including the entire Sanriku Coast. Even setting aside the grave issues related to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and its radioactive fallout, the devastation is enormous. Just imagining what to do with the incredible amount of rubble left by the disasters is daunting. Where will it be brought? How will it be processed? Furthermore, given that a quick conclusion of the clean-up effort is unlikely, it is essential in the meantime to address issues of basic sanitation and the possible spread of infectious diseases. Contamination of groundwater looms as another problem, and the reestablishment of a reliable sewage system to ensure access to clean water remains a major challenge. And most generally, how can the lessons of these terrible tragedies be applied to design and rebuild cities in the region?

Post-March 11 Japan clearly faces multiple serious challenges. Despite having the world’s third-largest economy and one of the world’s most highly developed infrastructures, the country cannot possibly handle all of these monumental problems by itself. Now is the time for all of us—policymakers, scholars, and businesspeople alike—to put our heads together to answer some of the pressing questions and concerns weighing upon the survivors of March 11 and to help Japan to recover from this unprecedented disaster.