Japanese town holds on to hope

RIKUZENTAKATA, March 22, The New York Times :

That was the last anyone saw 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, now 10 days ago, when a tsunami flattened three-quarters of the city in minutes.

Twenty-nine of Takata High’s 540 students are still missing. So is Takata’s swimming coach Motoko Mori, 29. 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 bracing for the worst.

The official statistics issued here on Monday stated that 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 a mile long and perhaps a half-mile wide, 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. On Monday, the surrounding 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 on Monday afternoon at Takata Junior High School, the city’s largest evacuation centre, where a white hatchback entered the school yard with the remains of Hiroki Sugawara, a 10th grader from the neighbouring 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 towards the body, laid on a blanket inside the car. “Please say goodbye!” But belief in miracles dies hard.

Inside the junior high, 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.

The sign read: “We are looking for Takata High School students and teachers.”

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