- By BC Cook
I LIVED on Saipan when the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011.
I remember how worried we were that our island would get hit, and how devastated Japan was. Not to spend too much time on numbers, but here are some staggering facts to consider:
200,000 buildings were destroyed by the combined earthquake and tsunami. Those were people’s homes and businesses, everything they had in the world. The tsunami washed out an estimated 18 million tons of debris into the ocean. Much of that sank to the bottom but much of it floats around out there still.
A YouTube page documented some of the more unusual items that have been recovered. Here is a brief summary of what they found. For more information you are encouraged to go to YouTube and check out some of the pages there.
Harley-Davidson motorcycle: This classic bike was found in the shipping crate that the Japanese owner kept it in. It floated all the way across the Pacific and was discovered in British Columbia, Canada. The cost to send it back to its owner would have been prohibitive so the man who found it donated it to the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Look for it on display if you ever visit there,
Soccer ball: A school boy in Japan lost nearly everything in his life, including the soccer ball he received as a gift from his classmates. A couple on Middleton Island near Alaska found it, translated the Japanese writing, and eventually returned the ball to its owner.
Rowboat: You may not be surprised that a small boat floated across the ocean to California, but this one traveled all the way upside down. Residents there cleaned all the barnacles and aquatic growth off it and returned it to the town from which it came.
Fishing boat: We devoted an entire column to the Ryou un Maru, the famous ghost ship that drifted across the Pacific unmanned. The previous owners had already collected the insurance money for it and the insurance company was not interested in salvaging it, so as it approached the coast of North America the Coast Guard deemed it a hazard to shipping and sank it near Alaska.
Japanese dock: Washing up on a beach in Oregon, the piece of docking was home to over 100 tons of sea life, from crabs to seaweed and barnacles. Although it was not a hazard to shipping, environmentalists worried that the dock would introduce invasive species into the local ecosystem. No word yet on any zebra mussel outbreaks.
3,000 bags of trash, 1000 lbs each: This is how much Japanese junk local volunteers have collected from the beaches of British Columbia, Canada. Admirably, Japanese volunteers have come in respectable numbers to help with the cleanup.
Whole houses intact: You have to see the pictures to fully appreciate it, but there are whole buildings floating out there, at least there were. Surely all of them have sunk or disintegrated by now. But it gives us a sense of the devastation when we consider that the tsunami lifted whole houses off their foundations and sent them out to sea, furniture and all.
The 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan and the 2004 earthquake/tsunami in Indonesia stand as the most catastrophic natural disasters of recent times. Thinking back on them brings to mind the words of the ancient mariner: “Father, your sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.