|Residents burn debris at a strawberry farm outside of Hachinohe city [D. Parvaz/AJE]
HACHINOHE — She can't say if the water came crashing from behind her or if it rushed up from beneath her feet, knocking her around her house.
What Keiko Kado is certain of is that the water came fast.
Kado, 61, was alone when the tsunami that followed the March 11 earthquake hit her small coastal community.
Living near the waterfront, she was within striking distance of the surge of water that has devastated so many towns along Japan's northeast coast.
With only a 20-minute warning, Kado was on the first floor of her home when it rapidly flooded with water up to her chest.
It seems most did not have the chance to reach high ground.
The community was warned that a 3m wave would be hitting the area, but what arrived was double that size, and the extent of the water damage on the houses, each bearing a brown watermark, shows that no one standing could keep his or her head above water.
Rattled, with cuts on her hands and bleeding from another injury near her right eye, Kado waded to the steps and crawled up the stairs.
"I hid in the wardrobe for five hours. I could not see anything. It was dark and... very cold."
She later took shelter in a gymnasium in the city where she received medical treatment.
Kado also said that the government has not helped her clean up or rebuild her house, and that she's paying some workers herself as well as relying on volunteers to help clear out the soggy debris that has replaced her creature comforts.
A team of teenage volunteers ambles over the rubble around the houses – some moving dirt out of homes in wheelbarrows, others carefully sifting through, cleaning and stacking what can be salvaged out of homes.
Kei Suzuki is among those reporting for duty. The 15-year-old said he was lucky – his house in the city, well away from the wasted shores, was neither damaged nor flooded. He was, however, quite scared.
"I was with my dog, and we ran outside," he said. "And then…" he starts jerking violently in place, demonstrating what he had to withstand. He said he heard people needed help and signed up with a group of volunteers.
Fortunately for the rescue efforts, the weather cleared for a while on Sunday, giving the cleanup crew a few hours of reprieve from the rain and snow that have complicated and slowed their efforts. On a dry day, Suzuki and his co-volunteers made good progress to clear wreckage out of homes and off roads.
Indeed, many in these small, scattered coastal communities are taking a similar approach – looking after themselves and each other rather than waiting for the authorities to show up.
Further south, fisherman Mitsuhitro Kawasaki was busy salvaging fishing nets left in the water because, he said, leaving them down there would only worsen their condition. Plus, they could be reused or recycled.
Around him, an entire fishing operation lay in shambles. A few boats left were floating, and more than a dozen were either sunk, or, as was the case with another small inlet Al Jazeera visited on the north end of Honshu Island earlier the same day, the vessels were strewn across dry land, capsized.
Nearby warehouses were nothing more than roofs and beams, with most of their siding torn away, their gates collapsed or mangled and folded like abstract origami.
Driving down the coast one is met with a disconcerting patchwork of charming villages and ravaged landscapes of... well, who can tell what they were – homes? Shops? Storage facilities? What they all are now is rubble.
It's hard to believe that given all the damage – flattened trees, strawberry farms turned into quicksand – that communities such as Hachinohe and further south in Hirono are considered lucky – they live, and their neighbourhoods still exist, such as they are, rather than being decimated by the tides.
It’s at one of these communities that we find a destroyed fish processing plant at the head of a row of thrashed industrial buildings. In a desperate bid to get rid of some of the fetid debris, one man there was tossing Styrofoam trays into a fire.
When asked if the wasn't concerned about pollution, he simply quipped, "Fukushima is worse".
It has been a few days since any gravely bad news has come out of the reactors in Fukushima.
Still, no one here feels that they're in the clear just yet. Quakes and aftershocks continue to rock the region daily.
The daily reports are tough to decipher, and while people, such as Keiko Kado, worry about the possibility of a meltdown, the concern isn’t enough to deter them from building their lives.
So, does that mean she trusts the government to fix the issue?
"Half – half," she said.
The warnings issued by authorities on foods – specifically, spinach and milk – contaminated by traces of radiated iodine are noted up north, but hardly a chief concern.
Visiting relatives up north, Endo Kita, 31, said he was more concerned with the fact that thousands (as many as 12,000) are still missing – in addition to the 8,400 confirmed dead by the authorities – and that many are still in shelters.
"So many have lost their homes, so many don’t have even electricity in their homes, supplies in shops are finishing and maybe… they can not control the temperature in the reactors," said Kita, who did not mention another major concern for many here – the shortage of fuel. Many petrol stations here in the north are closed, and long lines wind outside the ones that are not.
He did, however, refer to media reports that the central control room at the plant is still without power, meaning that neither the extent of the damage nor what's needed to repair it can be known.
"I am not worried about milk."
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