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Rodney Vaughan from the Fairfax County, Va., Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue searches structures and debris on March 16, 2011 in Kamaishi, Japan. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Marine Corps
Operation Tomodachi:
The disaster, the stranded
The recovery

By Erik Slavin

Stars and Stripes


Recovery never really stops for major disaster victims.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake ripped through eastern Japan, damaging buildings along hundreds of miles of coastline.

Within the hour, a tsunami that researchers say rose as high as 133 feet in one area and averaged 33 feet high at several other points crushed the northeastern Honshu coast. It swamped the power supply to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, triggering meltdowns and leaving the area uninhabitable due to radiation fallout. More than 20,000 would end up dead or missing.

The United States military launched Operation Tomodachi in response, mobilizing 24,500 servicemembers at its peak. The six-week mission — which provided lessons for future U.S. relief efforts — was lauded by Japanese officials and led to an upswing in U.S. approval there.

But recovery was up to the Japanese government. While trillions of yen have been spent, public opinion has often been critical at its pace and direction. Five years later, tens of thousands of people displaced by the disaster remain in temporary housing. The nuclear plant continues to contaminate 300 tons of seawater each day, leading to unsuitable water and soil.

Meanwhile, the region’s economy was beset by population decline and loss of jobs even before the disasters. The earthquake and tsunami accelerated that decline, and while reconstruction funds have helped, many residents wonder what will happen when the money runs out.

Photo Gallery

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luis Cantu remove debris from a destroyed neighborhood in Noda Village, Japan, after the village was ravaged by a March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
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