Tsunami Debris from the Japanese March 2011 Disaster

When the Earthquake and Tsunami occurred early in March 2011, near northeastern Japan, news reports described hundreds of small towns which were entirely wiped out by the huge tsunami waves, along with significant parts of many larger cities, such as Sendai, a city of a million people. The news reports showed images of much of Sendai which was devastated, and the stories and movies of the many other towns affected, which seemed clear in indicating that hundreds of thousands of people must have died.

Specifically, many movies showed entire houses being washed away out to sea as the tsunamis receded, and many government buildings were totally gone when people were finally able to get to the region a few days later.

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It seemed to me that two things were obvious. The destruction occurred so quickly that many thousands of people never had a chance to escape their homes, or probably felt safer staying in their homes than in being out in the open. (1) There seemed to be millions of tons of buildings which had gotten washed out into the Pacific Ocean; and (2) there must have been many tens of thousands of people in those buildings who must also have been washed out into the Ocean.

The Japanese government seemed to go to enormous effort to try to minimize the perception of the effects of the destruction. Early news reports were only referring to '1400 victims' and such numbers, where they only counted people who had been CONFIRMED to have died. But where entire cities were suddenly gone, who was left to file any Missing Persons Reports? And without any telephones or electricity or roads, who else could ever know or report that some relative had vanished?

In February 2013, news reports are now describing 'one and a half million tons of debris from Japan that is now washing up on American shores now. Yes, it is fine to be concerned about how to deal with all that debris. But I maintain my concerns that it seems nearly certain that the 1,500,000 tons of (floating) debris must certainly include many thousands of bodies of Japanese people who got washed out to the ocean by the tsunamis of March 11, 2011.

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Even nearly two years later, those governmental attitudes seem to still exist. Some Official Reports still only refer to around 14,000 fatalities, as those are the actual names of people who are confirmed dead. But some Japanese government Agencies are now beginning to refer to about 30,000 missing people. My suspicion is that the number might be far higher. When an entire neighborhood was suddenly washed away, how could anyone know whether some person had managed to escape to higher ground or been killed that day. And if all neighbors and relatives were also no longer known to exist, how could any official totals include any of such families or neighborhoods?

Even with such aggressive denial, in the following days, boats sometimes encountered huge debris fields out in the ocean, and one crew even found a dog which had survived on one of those debris fields.

At the time, I tried to get the Japanese government and some Agencies of the US government to carefully examine those debris fields for either human survivors or human bodies. After all, the enormous debris fields were materials from countless thousands of wooden houses and other buildings, exactly the structures which likely had gotten washed way with people inside them. The surviving dog seemed to prove that!

But the Japanese government seemed to be totally occupied with the effects of the catastrophe at the Nuclear Plant on that same day, and I could not get anyone to be interested in trying to send rescue boats out to see if there might be any survivors in any of the debris fields. The American Agencies I communicated with seemed to be singly interested in the scientific effects of the earthquake and tsunami, and they merely suggested that I wait about eighteen months for the debris to move across the Pacific Ocean and start washing up on California beaches! NO ONE seemed to care in the slightest that there might have been SURVIVORS out on any of those debris fields. The fact that even Japan acknowledges that there are at least 30,000 missing people, whom they have never found anywhere on land, seems obvious to me to indicate that there was very likely to be at least 30,000 human beings washed out into the Pacific Ocean that day.

I wonder whether anyone will EVER try to find those missing people? I tend to think not! But Japanese authorities are now saying (December 2012) that there is at least a million tons of floating debris still out in the Ocean from that day. 'Floating' pretty much eliminates steel and concrete, and limits most of the remaining debris to be either wood or plastic (which both float).

Again, if an average Japanese house included maybe 4 tons of wooden beams and plywood, then a million tons of debris which is still floating around the ocean might mean as many as 250,000 homes might be involved. Being more conservative, maybe 50,000 or 100,000 homes might have vanished to now become part of those debris fields.

I find it astounding that NO ONE seems to give the briefest thought to the near certainty that countless thousands of human bodies must have gotten washed out to sea that day by that Tsunami.

After around 20 months, finding human bodies still in those debris fields is probably unlikely. The skin and bodyfat and organs would have decomposed by now, or be eaten by fish and other animals as food. The remaining bones are more dense than seawater, and so individual bones would likely have then sunk to the bottom of the 10,000-foot-deep Pacific Ocean, never to be recoverable.

But I am an optimist, and an Analytical Statistician! Out of all those countless thousands of human bodies, I feel certain that a FEW human remains might still be floating in those debris fields. Maybe within some house that had gotten washed away intact, where a family of victims might still be found in the debris, if only someone made a valid effort.

Sadly, this situation is NOT the first such one I have encountered. In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina was approching the Louisiana coast, helicopter news cameras showed bumper-to-bumper outgoing traffic on each of the three large highways which connect New Orleans with the outside world. New Orleans is surrounded by fifty miles of swampland on all sides, including Lake Pontchartrain.

Because of those extensive swamp areas, there are no smaller highways connecting New Orleans with regions to the east, north or west. So anyone who wanted to leave New Orleans had to use one of those three Interstate highways, each of which are Causeways up on support pillars.

In any case, the helicopter news cameras on the evening before Katrina made landfall showed the Causeway / Bridge to the East (Interstate 10) being covered with vehicles which were essentially not moving. That Causeway is several miles long, on the way to Mississippi. I saw the news images and worried! I estimated that the 16-foot-long cars were about a car-length apart, and so spaced every 30 feet or so. In a mile (5280 feet) of high, that suggested that each lane therefore had around 180 cars per mile, or around 500 cars in the several miles of that Causeway. Three traffic lanes seemed to mean that roughly 1500 vehicles might then be sitting on the Causeway.

The next afternoon, once Katrina had passed and helicopter news cameras were again in the air, they showed that much of the Causeway was gone! The winds of Katrina and strong waves had caused many of the Causeway sections to no longer be on the support pedestals.

There were NO vehicles to be seen!

I hoped that at least some of those vehicles had been able to make it off the Causeway before it collapsed, but my crude estimates were that at least 1,000 or 2,000 people seemed likely to have died in vehicles which had gotten washed off the Causeway!

Months later, when official estimates were made, it was often said that about 1,400 people seemed to be unaccounted for.

I tried my darnedst to get Police or Louisiana State or the Federal Government to examine the waters near that Causeway, but apparently they all had more important things to be trying to do.

As far as I know, there may STILL be hundreds of vehicles in the shallow waters near that Causeway, with dead bodies in them!

It seems a near certainty that at least a few dozen vehicles must have gotten washed off the Causeway, even if it did not include the 500 or 1500 vehicles that I feared might be down there.

I admit that even if someone had taken some boats with metal detectors to survey the area, that would have been several days after Katrina, and no vehicle has enough air in it for any occupants to have survived more than a few hours.

But don't the relatives of the 1400 'missing people' after Katrina deserve to have someone at least TRY to find the remains of their loved relatives? But after eight years, NO ONE has ever made that effort! I find that disgusting! Even if only ONE vehicle might be found, that would be one family who might finally know the specifics about people they still consider 'missing'.

As to those many vehicles near that Causeway in Louisiana, over the past eight years, silt has probably buried many of the vehicles, but metal detectors would still easily find the vehicles now. And ocean tides and waves might have moved some of the vehicles around, but probably not much more than a few hundred feet away from the Causeway location.

Regarding Japanese victims, the fact that the Pacific Ocean is mostly about 10,000 feet deep makes it unlikely that bones which have fallen to the bottom will likely never be found, where the Louisiana Causeway was surrounded by waters that are only 10 or 20 feet deep.

Still, it seems to be mandatory that someone at least try to examine the many massive debris fields from Japan, which contain that million tons of wood and plastic debris, to see if even ONE human body might be found. THAT family would appreciate the effort!


This presentation was first placed on the Internet in October 2012.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago