The town of Noda used to sit on the Pacific Coast near the top of the main island of Japan.
It also used to be behind a massive tsunami wall — but the waves following the 9.0 earthquake on March 11 obliterated that concrete barrier. The pounding water flattened much of Noda.
The coastal plain is now an expanse of mud, pulverized houses, twisted light poles and snapped tree trunks. In some places the piles of debris are more than two stories high. Battered cars are mixed into heaps of splintered plywood, household appliances and silty muck.
Jun Oshita holds a single red and black tennis shoe. His 73-year-old mother, Kuni, was trapped in the waves and died in Noda. Oshita says he came to search for memories of his family but all he found is this shoe.
"I don't even have a photo of her, a picture, a portrait, nothing," he says.
His mother is one of the 27 confirmed dead in this town of 5,000 people. Local officials say the death toll was relatively low because the tsunami took longer to reach this area in the north and because residents had time to flee to higher ground.
Oda Ugi, the head of emergency management with the local government, says people here are accustomed to earthquakes and tsunamis. He says they know that if a quake hits they should immediately move up into the hills. About 400 homes were destroyed in Noda by the tsunami, most of them completely obliterated from their foundations. Municipal workers and volunteers are now working to clear the debris.
Several hundreds of yards inland from the coast, a supermarket was inundated with mud and seawater. The owners are now selling rice crackers and canned drinks from makeshift benches next to their old store.
A man looks over at the empty pumps of a filling station near the town of Noda.
A man looks over at the empty pumps of a filling station near the town of Noda. David Gilkey/NPR
There's still no electricity in much of Noda, and gasoline is extremely difficult to find.
Throughout most of northern Japan, gas stations have run out of fuel. At a station just outside Noda, Amiko Takahashi says the station closed immediately after the quake because there was no power to run the gas pumps.
She says when she finally opened on Monday she sold all her fuel in two hours. Like so many other gas-station attendants right now in Japan, she's been waiting ever since for a truck to come refill her tanks.
Back in the town of Noda, Chie Nakajo is helping to clean the mud and debris out of her family's fish shop. Seawater rose all the way above the counters and glass display cases of the store, destroying just about everything inside. But the building, Nakajo says, appears to be structurally sound.
Splattered in mud, she says the gas crisis is making things very difficult right now.
"We need the means, the people and the vehicles to deliver the fuel," Nakajo says. And all of these things have been disrupted by the quake.
There has also been a dire shortage of kerosene, which most people here use to heat their homes. In addition to the earthquake, aftershocks and tsunami, the area has been hit intermittently with snow.
"We can't predict the future," Nakajo says. "We don't know if we can regain our footing. This is a very unsettling time."
But ultimately, she says, she believes Noda and the rest of Japan will recover.