NEWPORT, Oregon--A small port city along the Oregon coast in the Pacific Northwest, Newport is a quiet friendly town.
This past summer, residents of Newport were abuzz and tour buses shuttled people to the shoreline to check out the big slimy excitement that had washed ashore--a 20-meter long, 6-meter wide chunk of concrete.
Not just any chunk of concrete. It was a floating dock from the fishing port of Misawa in Aomori Prefecture, which had been hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The pier had a polystyrene core, so it would not sink, and its 8,000-kilometer journey across the vast Pacific had taken one year and three months.
“The last time we had so many people come to this small town was when I was in junior high,” recalls an excited Jenny Smith, 30, who works at a cafe facing the Pacific Ocean.
She says there hasn't been a commotion like this since the killer whale from the 1993 “Free Willy” movie was brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium 17 years ago.
Smith says she took her two sons to see the Misawa dock three times.
“There were fish and crabs living in between cracks in the concrete, and seaweed, too," she says. "It gave us a sense of the force of the tsunami that could carry such a large mass all the way here.”
THREAT POSED BY FLOATING DEBRIS TO MARINE ECOSYSTEM
The Misawa pier was first spotted in Newport on June 5. Soon, people from across the United States came to the Oregon coast to check it out and snap photographs of it. Many prayed for the souls of the tsunami victims and placed bouquets of flowers next to it, while others climbed the 2-meter high structure. Tour buses brought curious sightseers to the pier, which caused traffic congestion on local roadways.
According to the Hatfield Marine Science Center of Oregon State University that inspected the pier, more than 13,000 people visited the dock in the first weekend after it washed ashore, which was equivalent to three-tenths more than Newport's population. The spectacle continued until the state government had the pier cut up and the pieces removed in August.
In the reception of the center in Newport, a long, thin portion of the pier measuring around one meter in length was put on display. On its surface were green streaks from where moss had been washed away. It was still slimy to the touch. The center plans to display another large chunk of cleaned debris in its entrance lobby, from March 2013, the second anniversary of the disaster, to convey the horror of the tsunami to future generations.
When the Misawa dock drifted ashore, it had retained its shape, so some citizens suggested that it could be put back into use at one of the city's ports. However, experts immediately pointed out the risks that it would entail.
“What was feared most was the threat posed by organisms that do not exist on the West Coast of the United States to the local ecosystem,” says Dick Brim, 62, a volunteer at the center.
Soon after it washed up, the pier was examined for traces of radiation. However, when the center later carried out further tests, it was found to be carrying around 100 varieties of seaweed, sea urchin, starfish, sea anemone and other organisms that do not normally make it across such a vast distance. Most of them were not found living in the wild on the Oregon coast. All were incinerated.
Seaweed, crabs and starfish have a strong ability to reproduce, and can be a potentially destructive threat to existing ecosystems and a harmful influence on local fisheries. In fact, there have been reports in the past of damage caused by crabs of Japanese origin being brought in by some unknown means and eating lobster larva on the East Coast of the United States.
The Oregon state government considers the Misawa pier just the beginning, and is expecting more debris from Japan to wash ashore in the coming months.
Their analysis has found that most debris from the Japanese tsunami is still around 1,500 kilometers offshore in the Pacific and is approaching the West Coast. To make it easier to report debris that has washed ashore, they have set up a dedicated 211 phone line that can be used within the state.
Warning signs have been posted at Beaches and other locations asking people not to take washed-up debris home with them, and special collection bins have also been put in place. In addition, volunteer organizations are carrying out beach cleaning operations to collect debris every month.
WARNING MESSAGE DELIVERED TO TOWN BY TSUNAMI
Blue signs can be seen scattered along Newport roadsides that say “Tsunami Evacuation Route.” Low-lying oceanfront areas have been designated as tsunami evacuation zones since before the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“We have to think of this pier that traveled here from so far away as a warning to this area,” says Carrie Lewis, 45, of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, located near Newport Harbor. "It provided an opportunity to seriously consider the fearsome potential of a tsunami."
When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, a tsunami evacuation order was issued for Newport's coastline community. At that time, the tsunami was forecast to reach Newport sometime after 7:30 a.m.
Early that morning, Lewis decided to close the aquarium for the day, and took charge of around 30 staff members who were preparing to open up as well as a few visitors who were waiting to enter. They sought refuge at a nearby school on higher ground.
Laura Anderson, 42, who runs a restaurant in one of the city's few commercial areas, made a run to the premises before opening time and loaded her office computer into her car before evacuating.
The height of the tsunami that actually reached the coast of Newport was in the tens of centimeters. In Depoe Bay, 10 kilometers north, a wooden pier with a motorboat attached to it was smashed, but there was little damage in the city itself.
Even so, because the tsunami warning took place in the early morning, many people left their homes by car, and roads leading to higher ground became congested in places. Some residents decided to stay at home in the knowledge that they would not be able to get anywhere.
In the days that followed, tsunami evacuation exercises began in the region. The objective was to flee to higher ground more than 15 meters above sea level within 15 minutes.
Last summer, scientists at Oregon State University calculated that there is a 40 percent chance of a tsunami equivalent to the one generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake occurring in the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years.
“When I saw the pier, it made it clear to me the unbelievable tragedy that had befallen Japan,” says candle store proprietor Jody Malloy, 42. “I want to look at it as a message telling us that the same tragedy should never be repeated.”
MOST TSUNAMI DEBRIS YET TO WASH ASHORE
An estimated 5 million tons of debris was carried out to sea by the March 11 tsunami, according to Japan's Environment Ministry and other sources. It is believed that around 70 percent of this has sunk to the bottom of the ocean along the coast of Japan, and about 1.5 million tons is drifting in the ocean.
In the months and years to come, the bulk of it will reach the West Coast of the United States and Canada.
From 2011, the Environment Ministry has been using satellite data and other information to carry out simulations of the flow of debris. It has attempted to use a supercomputer to calculate its spread, taking into account ocean currents and other factors.
However, it is extremely difficult to predict the direction of undersea currents. The influence of wind also varies depending on how much tsunami debris is floating on the ocean's surface.
It has also been learned that wood and plastic is breaking up and dispersing as it drifts.
According to a forecast announced in November, 3,200 tons of debris will wash ashore on the U.S. West Coast in February, and this looks to increase dramatically in June with another 33,000 tons on the way. Initial calculations had 41,300 tons reaching the West Coast by February, but the Environment Ministry says that its arrival will apparently be later than first thought.
The Cabinet Office's Secretariat of the Headquarters for Ocean Policy has stated that local Japanese embassies can be contacted when tsunami debris is found overseas. They then pass the information on to the Cabinet Office, and inquiries are made within Japan regarding the owner of the debris.
However, they have only been notified on 10 occasions, when piers, fishing boats, personal belongings and other items were located. Discoveries of large items apart from the pier found in Oregon have been rare, and the information provided has largely involved drifting fishing boats.
Debris has not necessarily arrived more quickly in regions in close geographic proximity to Japan. In Hawaii, fears grew soon after the tsunami that debris would wash ashore in vast quantities and destroy the local ecosystem, and the University of Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked citizens to report any that they found.
However, it looks as though the debris will reach Hawaii after it arrives on the West Coast of the U.S. mainland. This is because the Pacific Ocean has a strong clockwise flow, and the ocean current reverses when it reaches the West Coast and heads for Hawaii.
In October, a conference of Japanese and American nongovernmental organizations was held in the United States to discuss countermeasures for dealing with tsunami debris.
“Tsunami debris suddenly became a hot topic after the disaster, but there are other regions where huge quantities of garbage have already been washed ashore by the tides every day,” says conference participant Hiroshi Kaneko of the NGO Japan Environmental Action Network. “We should establish an international fund that will also deal with the disposal of refuse that drifts ashore on a regular basis.”
On Dec. 1, Japan announced that it is providing $5 million (422 million yen) to the United States to help clean up and dispose of the tsunami debris.
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