SENDAI, Japan — She scanned the landscape of debris and destruction, looking at the patch of earth where Japan’s massive tsunami erased her son’s newly built house so thoroughly that she can’t even be certain where it once stood.
Satako Yusawa teared up but pulled herself together quickly. Because for the 69-year-old widow, there was this to be thankful for: Her son and his family were out of town when Friday’s offshore, 8.9-magnitude quake sparked huge surges of water that washed fleets of cars, boats and entire houses across coastal Sendai like detritus perched on lava.
But her son had borrowed a lot of money to build that house, and had moved in only last month.
“This,” she said, “is life.”
No one knows yet how many people died in the disaster. Police found 200 to 300 bodies on beaches near Sendai but were still assessing the devastation in the northeastern port of 1 million people. Japan’s overall death toll stood at 686, though the government said the eventual tally could far exceed 1,000.
And for those who survived, the bleakest of landscapes unfolded before them.
In Sendai, mud-spattered survivors wandered streets strewn with fallen trees and houses ripped from foundations, alongside smaller relics of destroyed lives — a desk chair, a beer cooler. Power and phone reception remained cut, as rescuers plied through murky waters around flooded structures. Smoke from at least one large fire billowed in the distance.
This is what it looks like when the earth shakes, the water comes and the fires burn: Life is interrupted, reduced for hours and days to basic survival. Conveniences, taken for granted in one of the world’s most developed societies, become mere hopes for tomorrow.
Yusawa said she was having tea at a friend’s house when the main quake struck, shaking the ground massively for more than two horrifying minutes.
“We were desperately trying to hold the furniture up,” she said, “but the shaking was so fierce that we just panicked.”
Yoshio Miura, 65, was in his small trucking company office Friday afternoon when the rumbling started, sending him under a table and dislodging heavy metal cabinets.
“These cabinets fell down right on top of me, and luckily they were stopped by this table,” he said, gesturing across an office in shambles, its contents strewn across the floor by the quake and then coated in a thick layer of grime from the tsunami.
“The shaking was mostly side to side, it was very strong. … Look at what it did to this building!” He points to a large shed that was lifted off its foundation.
Then came the water — massive waves that swept some 6 miles (10 kilometers) inland.
“The flood came in from behind the store and swept around both sides,” remembered convenience store owner Wakio Fushima. “Cars were flowing right by.”
Wakio’s store, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the shore, already was reopened for business, but there was no power and the floors were filthy with tsunami residue.
Many Sendai residents spent the first night outdoors, unable to return to homes damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Some fellow residents and business owners chipped in with help. At an electronics store, workers gave away batteries, flashlights and cell phone chargers. Several dozen people waited patiently outside.
From a distance, the store appeared to have survived intact. But a closer look revealed several smashed windows and slightly buckled walls.
Inside was chaos. The ceiling of the second floor had collapsed, and large TVs, air conditioners and other products lay smashed and strewn about the aisles.
“Things were shaking so much we couldn’t stand up,” said Hiroyuki Kamada, who was working in the store when the initial quake hit.
The tsunami hit the city’s dock area and then barreled down a long approach road, carrying giant metal shipping containers about a mile (2 kilometers) inland and smashing buildings along the way.
Hundreds of cars and trucks were strewn throughout the area — on top of buildings, wedged into stairwells, standing on their noses or leaning against each other.
Most ships in port managed to escape to sea before the tsunami hit, but a large Korean ship was swept onto the dock.
Cell phone saleswoman Naomi Ishizawa, 24, was working when the quake hit in the mid afternoon. She said it took until nightfall to reach her house just outside Sendai and check on her parents, who were both OK. Their home was still standing, but the walls of a bedroom and bathroom had collapsed and debris was strewn throughout.
And yet, she was lucky. The tsunami’s inland march stopped just short of her residence; other houses in her neighborhood were totally destroyed.
Like many people throughout Japan’s northeast, she had not heard from others in her family and was worried.
“My uncle and his family live in an area near the shore where there were a lot of deaths,” Ishizawa said. “We can’t reach them.”