Japan faces its next chore: Cleaning up

 Do you start with the thousands of destroyed cars scattered like discarded toys in the city of Sendai? With the broken windows and the doorless refrigerators and the endless remnants of so many lives that clutter the canals?

In the first days after a tsunami slammed into Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, killing well over 10,000 people, it seemed callous to worry about the cleanup. The filth paled beside the tragedy. Now, nearly two weeks later, hundreds of communities are finally turning to the monumental task ahead. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina gives an idea of both the immensity of the job and the environmental hazards Japan could face for years to come.

“In Katrina, you had debris that had seawater, sewage, chemicals, gasoline, oil, that was all mixed together in a toxic soup,” said David McEntire, a disaster expert at the University of North Texas. “And you are going to have similar problems with the disaster in Japan.” Three years after Katrina, which spawned enough debris to cover Britain, the US government said New Orleans had not even come close to cleaning up.

The mess looks endless in Japan, and hauling it away seems unimaginable. The cost? No one really knows, though the crisis is emerging as the world’s most expensive natural disaster on record, with Japanese officials saying losses could total up to  $309 billion.
So there’s nothing to do but start. Mayumi Hatanaka began with the knee-high mud that had flooded into her little seafood restaurant in the small seaside city of Shiogama.

She and her daughter were scraping the muck down their driveway and into the street. The thick, dark goo looked almost volcanic. Workers hired by the city used a gargantuan truck-mounted vacuum, normally used for well-drilling, to hose it up. The noise of the pump and the sucking splutter of the hose nearly drowned out her voice, and she had to shout to be heard. Simply carving out an aisle in the restaurant took three days, Hatanaka said, so she has no idea when she will be able to reopen.

Much of the official cleanup effort so far has been to support rescue teams. Soldiers and city crew members have cleared streets of debris so rescuers can get through, and some buildings have been pulled apart in search of survivors. Now, with little chance left of finding anyone still alive, the concern is to avoid accidentally clearing away corpses with the debris.

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