6 Nov 2011

Japan's tsunami towns still 'worse than war zones'

Channel 4 News cameraman Stuart Webb has covered several wars around the world but says the destruction wreaked by the Japanese tsunami is far worse – even eight months after it happened.

Channel 4 News cameraman Stuart Webb has covered several wars around the world but says the destruction wreaked by the Japanese tsunami is far worse – even eight months after it happened.

I’m still shocked. Utterly shocked. Eight months on from the tsunami and it’s still almost impossible to comprehend the scale of the destruction here.

I find myself driving into yet another town that had once been home to some twenty thousand or so people and find myself yet again dumbstruck by what I see.

Take the town I drove into today. Rikuzentakata was home to 23,000 people. It’s been wiped off the map. That sounds like such a tired cliché – but how else do you describe it? The town is gone.

There is a hive of activity here, but all it consists of is never ending lines of diggers and trucks clawing away at the debris and piling it up into man-made hills. It’s all very organised.

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All that is left for as far as the eye can see are these man made hills. Hills of rubble; of concrete and steel; of wood and trees; of fridges and TVs; of tyres and cars. Mound upon mound; hill upon hill. The town has vanished. All that is left of Rikuzentakata and countless other communities are these man made hills.

It’s a scene played out all along this cost for hundreds of miles. No inlet, estuary, beach or harbour escaped the wave. Every single seaside town and village where the water reached has been totally obliterated.

I wonder what the people must think who live just slightly higher up the hills and whose homes escaped. Now they look out over villages and towns that have been completely destroyed. Once thriving living communities now reduced to a barren wasteland of rubble and destruction for miles and miles. It must be a depressing sight.

Worse than war zones

Eight months on and the tsunami-hit areas are still very much in the clean-up phase; rebuilding for real is still a very long way off. The scenes still beggar belief. It would take years of intense conventional warfare to produce anything like what I’ve seen here. Think Europe or indeed Japan after the Second World War, or the fields of Flanders after the First. But even then it still can’t match the total destruction here.

In conventional warfare there are usually some buildings and areas which survive the bombardment. Not here. There is the odd concrete structure that still stands but they have been so damaged by the surging waters and the tonnes of debris that smashed into them that they will all have to be demolished. Destruction that took a mere half hour or so will take decades to repair. Rebuilding will have to start from an absolute zero.

It is perhaps driving at night you get the full impact and sheer enormity of what’s happened here and how far away things are from being anything like normal. You drive into a town that used to be home to thousands of people and encounter only darkness and silence. All around is black. There are no street lights because there are no streets; no lights in homes or offices because there are none left. No one is living here. Just acres and acres of blackness.

Through the headlights all you see are the endless traces of building. In the darkness they look uncanny, like a never ending succession of grave plots. It’s an eerie and saddening experience.

It’s an unfortunate comparison being Japan but back in March when the tsunami struck the first town I visited, Minamisanriku, instantly reminded me of those old photographs I’d seen of the aftermath in Hiroshima. Eight months on and it is still a scene I would recognise from those old photographs.

You can follow Stuart Webb on Twitter @Worldwidewebb1