OTSUCHI, Japan — Four days ago, Otsuchi was just another Japanese coastal town, a destination for surfers and lovers of remote beaches. Now, only a supermarket and a Buddhist temple remain standing amid a sea of devastation.
Like most of Japan's northeast, Otsuchi was rattled by Friday's massive earthquake and then flattened by the ensuing tsunami. More than half the town's population of about 19,000 is buried under the rubble, officials say.
"Otsuchi reminds me of Osaka and Tokyo after World War II," Tadateru Konoe, president of Japan's Red Cross, told Reuters, as rescue workers swarmed over rubble, twisted metal and debris, some of it ablaze.
"Everything is destroyed and flattened. This is a complete disaster. In my long career in the Red Cross, this is the worst I have ever seen," he said.
Fires burned in the hills overlooking Otsuchi, complicating rescue efforts. Near-freezing temperatures, and the extent of the devastation, made chances for surviving this disaster slim.
"It really doesn't get any worse than this — I've never seen anything so bad," said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation of the Red Cross. "It is feared that more than half the town's population is buried."
All along the ravaged northeastern Pacific coast, there were similar scenes of destruction. The wall of water transported homes inland, swept ships into fields, upended cars and, in one instance, lifted a sailing boat onto the roof of a house.
As many as 10,000 people are thought to have been killed. Kyodo news agency said 2,000 bodies had been found on the shores of Miyagi prefecture, which suffered the brunt of the damage.
In Minami Sanriku, Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photographer Adrees Latif said the waves wiped out the whole town. More than 10,000 people were unaccounted for, but some families who lived in the surrounding hillside survived and could be seen scrambling across the rubble to get to what once was the centre of town.
"I have seen similar disasters — I covered the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami from Thailand — but I have never seen anything like this in my life," Latif said. "I stopped shooting for a while to look out on to the town, and I just stood there in disbelief."
The enormity of the disaster has shaken Japan to the core.
Survivors walked through the rubble, many in tears after losing loved ones, others unsure of the fate of family and friends. They lined up in front of notice boards at emergency centres looking for news.
"I am looking for my parents and my older brother," a weeping Yuko Abe, 54, said at an emergency centre in Rikuzentakata, an all-but-flattened town of 24,500 people in far-northern Iwate prefecture.
"Seeing the way the area is, I think perhaps they did not make it. I also cannot tell my siblings who live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working."
Many spent another freezing night huddled in blankets around heaters in shelters along the coast. Almost two million households were without power, the government said. There were about 1.4 million without running water.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said food, water and other necessities such as blankets were being delivered by vehicles but because of damage to roads, authorities were considering air and sea transport.
In Kuji, the Kita Nihon Zosen ship-parts factory was reduced to matchwood and a skeletal frame by the tsunami, but some staff turned up for work anyway on Monday and waited at the front gate, smoking cigarettes.
Many were in shock. One young worker at the ship parts factory explained why he was there. "Because it's a work day," he said.
When the earthquake hit, factory boss Teruo Nakano sent a few workers to look at the sea level. The tide often recedes abnormally in a tsunami before the huge volume of water gathers in height on the shallowing shore and strikes.
"Just after the quake, the water level was already a metre lower, so we thought 'this is bad' and escaped immediately to higher ground," he said.
All the workers survived. Nakano said he planned to send them all home.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.