Town clings to hope but awaits the worst

One in 10 of its residents dead or unaccounted for

In Rikuzentakata, 775 people are listed as dead and 1,700 as missing. But the destruction suggests a higher death toll. In Rikuzentakata, 775 people are listed as dead and 1,700 as missing. But the destruction suggests a higher death toll. (Chris Mcgrath/ Getty Images)
By Michael Wines
New York Times / March 22, 2011

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RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan — On the afternoon of Friday, March 11, the Takata High School swim team walked a half-mile to practice at the city’s nearly new natatorium, overlooking the broad sand beach of Hirota Bay.

That was the last anyone saw of them. But that is not unusual: In this town of 23,000, more than one in 10 people is either dead or has not been seen since that afternoon, when a tsunami flattened three-quarters of the city.

Twenty-nine of Takata High’s 540 students are still missing. So is Takata’s swimming coach, 29-year-old Motoko Mori. So is Monty Dickson, a 26-year-old American from Anchorage, who taught English to elementary and junior high students.

Life goes on here, as much as life can go on in a place where four in 10 people live in camps, their old lives gone forever. But many in Rikuzentakata seem to exist in suspended animation, clinging to fantasies of a family-reuniting miracle, but waiting, sword-of-Damocles style, for the worst.

Futoshi Toba, the town’s 46-year-old mayor, is among them. On that Friday, he huddled on the third-floor roof of city hall as the wave crashed over the building and erased virtually everything else in sight, including his home.

“I lost my wife,’’ he said in a conversation at the makeshift emergency center, then quietly added, “Maybe.’’

The official statistics issued yesterday stated the tsunami had killed 775 people in Rikuzentakata and left 1,700 missing. In truth, a trip through the waist-high rubble, a field of broken concrete, smashed wood, and mangled autos, leaves little doubt that missing is a euphemism.

This was once a fishing village of uncommon beauty, planted in a steep valley that descended to a seafront shaded by thousands of conifers. Yesterday, the hills were girdled by a bathtub ring of wreckage and felled trees at least 30 feet high.

The tsunami did produce one true miracle, an 80-year-old woman and her grandson who, trapped inside their nearly demolished house, subsisted on the contents of a refrigerator until the boy wriggled out and alerted rescuers on Sunday.

The norm, however, played out yesterday afternoon at Takata Junior High School, the city’s largest evacuation center, where a white hatchback rolled into the schoolyard with the remains of Hiroki Sugawara, a 10th-grader from the neighboring town of Ofunato. It was not immediately clear why he had been in Rikuzentakata.

“This is the one last time,’’ the boy’s father cried as other parents, weeping, pushed terrified teenagers toward the body, laid on a blanket inside the car. “Please say goodbye!’’

But belief in miracles dies hard.

At the evacuation center, an alcove wall was filled with scrawled pleas for help finding vanished friends and relatives. Fliers plastered an adjoining wall, many with poignant snapshots of the missing in happier times. “The friends from the kindergarten hope you are OK,’’ one read. “Grandma and Grandpa,’’ said another, “we are looking for you.’’

Beside them stood a woman holding a handwritten sign taped to a piece of cardboard. It read, “We are looking for Takata High School students and teachers.’’

Mori appears to have been at Takata High when the earthquake struck. When a tsunami warning sounded 10 minutes later, the 257 students still there were ushered up the hill behind the building. Mori did not go. “I heard she was in the school, but went to the B&G to get the swim team,’’ said Yuta Kikuchi, a 15-year-old 10th-grader, echoing other students’ accounts.

Neither she nor the team returned. It was rumored, but never proven, that she took the swimmers to a nearby city gymnasium where, it has been reported, about 70 people tried to ride out the wave.

The ensuing tsunami gutted the B&G center — tossing the giant roof girders, pine trees, and other debris into the pool — then rushed to Takata High, collapsing the gymnasium and wrecking all three stories of the school’s main building.

People here say it is still possible that some of the missing could be lost in Rikuzentakata’s 60-plus evacuation centers, where more than 9,400 citizens — some 40 percent of the town — have taken shelter.

Ten days after the tsunami hit, that seemed difficult to believe. But in a town that has not much else but hope to cling to, people believe it anyway. top stories on Twitter

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