Shizuo Kambayashi  /  AP
A resident walks between the rubble caused by the March 11 tsunami at Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, on Wednesday.
updated 3/24/2011 5:31:02 PM ET 2011-03-24T21:31:02

Where do you even start?

Do you start by carting away the Chokai Maru, the 150-foot ship that was lifted over a pier and slammed into a house in this port town? 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.

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The legacy of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coastline in 2005, 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're going to have similar problems with the disaster in Japan."

Three years after Katrina, which spawned enough debris to cover Britain, the U.S. government had said the mess was not even close to being cleaned 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 25 trillion yen ($309 billion). The World Bank says reconstruction could take five years.

So there's nothing to do but start.

'Working, working'
Mayumi Hatanaka began with the knee-high mud that had flooded into her little seafood restaurant in the small seaside city of Shiogama.

"It's been four days, and we've been working, working," she said, standing beneath a sign that promised food "Straight From The Fishery To You."

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'll be able to reopen. "I think we'll never finish," she said, only briefly willing to set aside her shovel before getting back to work.

Much of the official cleanup effort so far has been to support rescue teams. Soldiers and city crews 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.

Takashi Takayama is a city official in Higashimatsushima, a port town brutalized by the tsunami, leaving nearly 700 people dead. He said the city, where the Chokai Maru ship was thrown ashore, is still cleaning up — and footing the bill — from a major earthquake in 2003.

"I don't know how long it will take," he said. "The last time it was just parts of houses that were destroyed. Now it's the whole house. So I don't know how we'll do it."

With city workers desperately overworked, officials turned to a local association of construction companies to help. Those private contractors helped clear the roads and have started piling up debris in small hills, soon to be small mountains, on city land near the port.

First, sort
Japan is a country where separating trash into its various components is almost sacrosanct: There are the burnables, the food items, the array of different recyclables. Takayama is already dreading the arguments when disaster-weary residents refuse to categorize their garbage properly.

"Sorting everything out will be the first challenge," he said.

A 2004 tsunami, which killed 230,000 people in 14 Asian and African countries, left thousands of cities and towns facing a task similar to Japan's today.

In Indonesia, the United Nations employed 400,000 workers to clear 1.3 million cubic yards (1 million cubic meters) of debris just from the urban areas of the hard-hit city of Banda Aceh.

Many of the countries affected by that disaster were less developed than Japan and lacked sophisticated waste disposal systems. In the initial cleanups, some burned debris in the open air, dumped it in makeshift landfills and used other environmentally risky methods, polluting wells, inland waterways and the nearby seas.

Japan will presumably use state-of-the-art incinerators and sanitary landfills, though technological prowess doesn't guarantee there won't be problems. In the United States, there were allegations of corruption by cleanup companies after Hurricane Katrina, including claims that hazardous debris was improperly dumped in landfills.


Associated Press writers Joji Sakurai in Tokyo and Denis Gray in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Apparent leak detected in Japan reactor

  1. Closed captioning of: Apparent leak detected in Japan reactor

    >> short time ago japan's prime minister delivered an address to his nation issuing an apology to farmers and businesses damaged by the nuclear crisis. he's been thanking the so-called fukushima 50r, the workers who stayed inside the plant trying to cool the reactors.

    >> the most recent concerns surfaced thursday when three workers waded into water at reactor 3 and were exposed to excess radiation. two suffered severe skin burns. now crews have to determine if the leak is coming from the reactor core itself. let's get to nbc's chief science correspondent robert bazell in tokyo. bob, what can you tell us?

    >> reporter: well, good morning, matt. i can tell you that at the very least this is a major setback in the efforts to contain the reactors. at worst, it's the beginning of a release of more radiation into the environment.

    >> now, about reactor number 3 --

    >> reporter: the apparent leak is in reactor 3 which has been the most troubled at the fukushima site. today prime minister kan addressed the nation.

    >> translator: the government is stepping up monitoring efforts to control the radiation.

    >> reporter: the problem came to light when three workers got exposed to excess raidradiation. two of them were taken to a radiation hospital. measurements of the water in the plant found it to be 10,000 times normal radiation. today an official was asked about the source. when you take a look at the water, he said, it appears the source of the radiation is from the reactor. also the government said people living within 18 miles of the site should consider ale voluntary evacuation. earlier they suggested people in the zone stay indoors. the next big questions , how much of the radiation is leaking and how much will remain in the concrete and steel containment facility that surrounds the reactor and how much gets into the environment? reactor number 3 where a hydrogen explosion destroyed the building covering the containment facility is considered the most dangerous. the fuel contains plutonium which is more deadly than the uranium in the other reactors. it's not clear what the next steps are going to be. nuclear engineers say this is uncharted territory but say it will be difficult and dangerous and could go on for weeks or longer. ann?

    >> robert bazell , thank you very


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