Tsunami debris a reminder of disaster’s toll on lives

By:  Julie Muhlstein
Source: Everett Herald

It's more than an environmental challenge. It's beyond a potential threat to our coastal economy.

"The debris from the tragic tsunami in Japan is a national problem," U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said last week after a boat marked with Japanese writing was found on a beach at Cape Disappointment State Park near Ilwaco.

It is all that: problem, challenge and threat. Debris from the tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011 may bring to our shores invasive species, hazardous materials, and tons of things needing disposal.

I see more than a messy relic in photos of the overturned boat, covered with sea life, that landed near Ilwaco.

That boat is a silent witness.

Fifteen months after the tragedy, we can watch online video of killer waves slamming whole cities. Technology lets us see the chaos and hear shouts of terror.

On this side of the Pacific, during a quiet walk on a beach, we may find an object that was slammed, broken and washed away. Those things can't share their stories.

The sight of tsunami debris packs an emotional punch. It's a haunting reminder of thousands of lives gone, and of people who lost so much.

Kiyoko Nelson, of Lake Stevens, knows that government agencies need plans for dealing with the debris. She hopes people will see more than problems in the wreckage.

Nelson, whose parents live in suburban Tokyo, pays attention to news reports and Twitter posts about the debris. In addition to the boat, a 65-foot dock loaded with sea life recently came ashore in central Oregon.

"I do understand the political thinking -- who's going to be responsible and what should they do? That's the first reaction," Nelson said Thursday. "My reaction is, each piece of debris comes with memories of the people. I ask for compassion. Imagine, what if you lost your family or you lost your house?"

Nelson was interviewed for this column in March 2011. She told of waiting 10 terrifying hours to learn that her mother had survived the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami. She went to Japan shortly after the disaster, and will visit her homeland again this month.

In Japan, she said, photographers have created albums of pictures showing items retrieved from the destruction. "Some families in Japan may like to see the debris that comes here," she said.

Agencies are working to find owners of Japanese property. The Associated Press reported this week that, according to the Japanese consulate in Seattle, an owner of the boat found near Ilwaco was located through the vessel's registration number. Consulate spokesman Travis Doty said the owner confirmed having lost the boat to the tsunami from the island of Honshu. The owner didn't want it back.

Ben Erickson is director of cultural and educational programming at the Hyogo Business and Cultural Center in Seattle. The organization works to promote a sister-state relationship between Washington and Hyogo Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

Erickson lived in Japan for two years before the tsunami. He has connections in areas hardest hit by the disaster.

He was involved in tsunami relief efforts, including a website that brought together charities to help. This March he helped organize a first-anniversary tsunami memorial event at Seattle Center.

Erickson said the debris carries a message, not only of what happened but about the future.

"For people with strong connections to Japan, it's less a reminder and more an ever-present call to continue to be connected," he said. "After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, recovery took not just a few months, and not just a year. In Kobe it took probably close to 10 years. With this one, who knows how long we need to keep people engaged?"

Next week, Erickson is scheduled to lead teachers on a tour of Japan's tsunami disaster areas. At a briefing, he said, the teachers discussed the debris coming to our shores.

While government agencies -- the U.S. Coast Guard, state Department of Ecology and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration among them -- consider how to handle the debris, there is no forgetting the human toll. More than 20,000 people died in the disaster, and thousands more were injured or went missing.

"It's very emotional to see these things," Erickson said of the debris. "I think the best way to remember Tohoku, the northeast region that was hit, is to go there and meet the people who continue to rebuild."