Disasters wipe little Japanese fishing town off the map

OTSUCHI, Japan Tue Mar 15, 2011 1:49pm GMT

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OTSUCHI, Japan (Reuters) - The fishing hamlet of Otsuchi never had an easy relationship with nature -- forest fires are a seasonal threat and earthquakes, and the high waves that often follow, are all too frequent.

Today Otsuchi, on Japan's eastern coast, has ceased to exist, overwhelmed by a combination of earthquake, tsunami and fire that razed the town of 17,000 people Friday, killing more than half the population in a matter of moments.

What wasn't destroyed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake was either consumed by the spontaneous blazes that followed, or obliterated when the waves breached the six-metre (18 foot) high harbour defences and raced through the town, smashing everything in their path.

A majority of the town's residents remain unaccounted for, but Tuesday rescue workers were picking through rubble and debris and slowly adding to the dozens of blanket-wrapped bodies arranged in a neat grid.

Next to this makeshift morgue on the outskirts of the town is the remains of a gymnasium, where about 500 residents have taken refuge.

With the mayor missing -- he was said to be holding a safety meeting when the quake struck -- residents say they are surviving the best they can with the help of people from neighbouring towns who are sharing what little food they have, bringing golf ball-sized rice portions to hand out, one per person, for breakfast and dinner.

"That's how we're hanging on," says Seikan Nakamura, a 70-year-old community leader with an easy smile which suddenly gave way to tears. "Even if we wanted to go shopping, there's nothing left here. Money is no good here. It's just unbearable."

At the entrance of the dim gymnasium, messages asking for information about lost relatives and friends filled a wall and a steady stream of people perused each note.

GLIMPSING RELATIVES ON TV

Hiromi Kinno, a nurse living in Miyako, another badly hit port along the coast, was looking for her sister and her young family of four. She had only just learned that her parents, whose house was washed away in another coastal town nearby, were safe when a friend glimpsed them at an evacuation centre on TV.

In other areas ravaged by the disaster, people are slowly returning to sift through the rubble and see what they can salvage. In Otsuchi, there is nothing to return to, only destruction as far as the eye can see.

Shumpei Kawauchi, 23, a fisherman, was one of the few residents there Tuesday, his right leg in a cast.

Along with a friend, he puffed away at a cigarette near what used to pass for the entrance to town, recognisable only by the remains of a sign for a now non-existent shopping mall.

"It was like being inside a washing machine," he said of the moment the tsunami overwhelmed him, his face still marked by mud from his lucky escape.

He had tried to escape in his car, but was forced to run for his life when his vehicle became jammed in the panicked evacuation.

A local fireman who gave his name only as Fujiwara was on duty at the time of the disaster but Tuesday was still searching for his sister.

As he sat amid the rubble that remained of the town, he flicked through a photo-album he had found.

"If there were people around, we would be able to ask, but since there are so few people around there's so little information," he said.

(Writing by David Fox; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Miral Fahmy)

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