Japan earthquake: Tsunami leaves Sendai area devastated

Post-tsunami landscape in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, 13 March

As you enter the tsunami zone, there is nothing but devastation stretching away into the distance.

It begins just a few miles from the skyscrapers of Sendai city. You can see the city's tower blocks nearby but, as you head towards the seashore, everything has been destroyed.

A vast swathe of land along the coast, perhaps a couple of miles deep, has been inundated.

Field after field is flooded, the ditches along the roadside are full of cars swept away by the waves of water that poured through here, and debris from thousands of homes lies everywhere. In one flooded field alone I counted more than 50 cars.

In another field is a green armchair, sitting incongruously in the middle of the water. All around are things picked up by the tsunami, now strewn here and there.

Image caption A sense of shock has enveloped the region

In the distance, men in orange suits and waterproof boots try to cut through the roof of a collapsed house. And far behind them black smoke pours from a burning petrochemical plant.

The scene could almost be apocalyptic.

The skies all along the coastline are buzzing with helicopters. They are search teams scouring the wrecked landscape for any signs of life.

But thousands are still missing, and it is hard to believe that anyone could have survived.

Amidst the devastation we came across Natsuko Komura. She was picking her way through the mud, looking lost.

She told us she had been riding her horse here when the earthquake struck. She jumped in her car and fled, along with many others, as the waves approached.

"The traffic lights had stopped working and there was massive congestion, rows and rows of cars," she told me.

Now she had come back to see if she could find her horse. But she couldn't even recognise where roads used to be, unable to find her bearings because the tsunami has altered everything.

Image caption The damage to the area is being described as apocalyptic

"Words fail me," she said, "because there is nothing here, the things that are supposed to be here, everything is gone."

As we moved on, she just stood, rooted where she was, bewildered.

But others didn't outrun the tsunami. Search teams are combing through the flooded fields and wrecked villages looking for bodies. They use long probes to poke into the mud and the piles of flotsam dumped by the water.

We watched as the teams waded out to a minivan that had been marooned in the middle of a field. Inside they found one more body, someone who had drowned in their car as they tried to escape.

More than 200 bodies have been recovered in this area. The police chief for the local prefecture estimates 10,000 may have died.

New alerts

Then we headed further towards where the tsunami hit land close to the little village of Higashiro. We had to pick our way through a sea of mud.

What should have been a road was covered in broken branches, a squashed tractor and lots of electricity cables that had been brought down. The destruction goes on and on.

The seashore was in the distance behind a row of trees. Here the waves toppled houses, they lie at crazy angles. Trees have been smashed into the buildings. A motorcycle lies twisted and bent.

Inside the houses the furniture has been turned to matchsticks, possessions tossed everywhere, and on a few walls are portraits with the faces of those who once lived here, now stained by the waters which filled everything.

An old man who had just been recovering some possessions from his house in the village said: "The faster people ran, the more chance they had of surviving." Then he added: "Thirty people are still missing, I don't know if they are alive or dead."

At the end of the day the recovery teams had to pull back a couple of miles from the seashore. Another tsunami alert had just sounded and it wasn't safe for them to keep working near the coast.

Every day there are more new earth tremors, aftershocks from Friday's giant earthquake. As you gaze over the wrecked landscape it feels as if the natural order of things has been shaken, and nobody knows when it will settle down again.