U.S. officials tour scenes of destruction in Japan
ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Top U.S. military leaders and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan flew into this devastated coastal city Wednesday, marking the first high-profile visit by the United States to areas hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami nearly two weeks ago.
Commanders of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Japan as well as Ambassador John Roos toured the Watanoha Elementary School where about 1,200 displaced and hungry residents have converted muddy classrooms into living space.
It is among the most affected areas in Miyagi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, and the visit comes as the U.S. military works here to assist Japanese authorities, who are still struggling to find the bodies of the dead, clear neighborhood lanes packed with debris and feed those who are packed into the hundreds of shelters.
“The multiple dimensions to these disasters, it is more than I expected to see,” said Adm. Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, which includes all military forces in the region. “I mean it is just remarkable that the Japanese government and the Japanese defense force have done what they have in just 11 days.”
Willard, who offered shelter residents the “maximum” support of the U.S. military, traveled to Ishinomaki with Lt. Gen. Burton Field, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, and Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“With my first visit to the area, we are getting a sense of the scope and the scale,” Walsh said. “It’s overwhelming and its humbling.”
In this area of Japan, about 200 miles northeast of Tokyo, the search continues for casualties in some areas mostly untouched by recovery. But it has seen some minor improvement since a three-story wave scraped away entire neighborhoods and gutted towns March 11 following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. A main highway along the coast has been cleared and businesses and residents whose homes were not completely destroyed have begun to move out mud-caked, water-logged belongings and stack them outside.
Aid such as water, blankets and food has begun to filter in as well, oftentimes due to the combined effort of the Japanese authorities and the U.S. military. The Marine Corps delivered crates of bottled water to the Watanoha Elementary shelter before the high-profile visit Wednesday.
Still, shelters are having difficulty providing enough food for the displaced, which in Ishinomaki city number more than 29,000.
“There is never quite enough food for everybody,” said Hiroyuki Ogata, a city worker at the Watanoha Elementary shelter, which cares for the 1,200 who live there as well as another 2,000 residents who have stayed in the surrounding neighborhood despite overwhelming destruction.
On Wednesday, shelter residents were gathered in the school gymnasium, which was almost completely covered by people and blankets.
Willard, Field and Walsh entered the gym with Roos, who crouched to hug Japanese living there.
“We are here to help you,” Roos said, his voice cracking with emotion. “We love you.”
The shelter residents — many elderly and wrapped in blankets — listened to Roos through an interpreter and applauded his comments.
“You here in this room are the most resilient people in the world, and I have no doubt you will recover from this horrible tragedy,” he said.
Field handed out gifts to children in the gym and the visit by the military and State Department lasted about an hour. Afterward, Willard, Field, Walsh and Roos were whisked by bus back to their helicopter.