Police officers conduct a search and rescue operation in the Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
SOMA, Japan (AP) — Hidekatsu Sato stands in the doorway of his gutted house and looks out impassively at the sea as it laps up against the harbor wall just a few meters away. Born and raised here, he went to Tokyo to work as a plumber, then returned a few years ago to live out his retirement years.
"I came back here to die, and that's still my plan," the grizzled 73-year old said. "I'm not leaving."
With radiation leaking from a nuclear power plant near his city, he may not have that choice.
Jutting out into the Pacific Ocean on Japan's devastated northeastern coast, Soma — population 38,000 — is a microcosm of the calamity that befell this country on March 11. Like dozens of other towns, Soma bore the full force of the earthquake, then was inundated by the towering tsunami that raced in behind it.
Now, it is struggling to cope with the unfolding crisis at the nearby Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.
Soma sits in the shadow of the crippled facility that was badly damaged by the tsunami and has been leaking radioactivity into the air and sea and has forced tens of thousands of people to flee or hunker down indoors. Local crops and milk are contaminated, and there are fears that the future may hold more hardship than anyone here has ever known.
"I've never had much, and I don't need much," Sato said. "But I just don't know how this is ever going to end."
Even without the concerns over radioactivity, it is hard to imagine what is ahead for Soma.
Its harbor, once a popular destination for sport fishermen and tourists, smells of death.
Rotting fish are strewn across the one main street that has been cleared enough to allow emergency vehicles through. Clams and crabs intended for sale on what everyone expected would be just another ordinary day are mixed in with the piles of timber and debris that were once people's homes, stores and schools.
Sato saw it all.
"It was like a freeway, everything was moving so fast," he said of the powerful wave. "Houses, boats, trucks — they all just flew by on the water. I escaped from my house to a little hill out back. We haven't seen anything like this for generations."
But Sato says it is what he can't see now that scares him the most.
"We Japanese grow up hearing stories about the horrors of radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said. "We, as a people, have a special fear of radiation. It's just so mysterious. It causes an irrational fear. We don't know what to think."
Shortly after the damage to the Fukushima plant became apparent, the government issued an evacuation order for all residents within a 6-mile (10-kilometer) radius of the six reactors, which provide a major source of power for millions of people in Tokyo.
That zone later became 12 miles (20 kilometers), and residents in an added ring of 6 more miles (10 more kilometers) were told to stay indoors. A flood of evacuees soon began streaming into Soma, which is just outside both rings.
"We are now taking in several hundred people from those areas," said Katsuhiro Abe, a Soma city official. "That's on top of about 2,000 of our own people who have no homes."
Abe stressed that — as far as the government's assessment goes — Soma, which is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away from the nuclear facility, is safe. Radiation levels are below what would be considered an immediate health risk.
Abe said the invisible threat bearing down on the city came as a surprise.
Soma was reasonably well-prepared for an earthquake. The size of the tsunami was more unexpected, but officials had been trained in how to respond if one hit. The nuclear crisis, however, caught them off guard. Abe said the city is now ready to evacuate everyone again if the situation at the plant deteriorates.
"We are watching the developments at the reactors with extreme caution, and we are preparing for the worst," he said. "It is a constant fear that we all must consider, but we must do so calmly."
Still, he said the nuclear crisis has added another layer of complexity to a natural disaster that was overwhelming in its own right.
"If it weren't for the nuclear plants, we could focus on our recovery," Abe said. "But we don't know how this is going to play out. People from outside are afraid to come in to bring us the supplies that we desperately need. Convincing truck drivers or others that it is safe now, right here, has been a big obstacle for us. People just don't want to go anywhere near the reactors."
"And if we can't sell our produce, like seaweed and rice, we are doomed," he added.
Back on the waterfront, Sato and his neighbors are mostly left to fend for themselves.
They have no water, no power, no gas. They must travel to evacuation centers to get food — usually just one rice ball a day. Most stay with family nearby on higher ground at night, then return to the shore to go through the motions of cleaning up, though it is a huge task.
As a light snow falls, port worker Mitsuyoshi Abe stands out in front of his wife's two-chair hair salon. He has a cigarette while he considers what to do. Although the building is still standing, the damage was so severe that Abe at first had no idea of where to start.
"Now it's all starting to look normal," he said. "I'm getting used to the devastation."
Abe said his house isn't his primary worry. It can be rebuilt.
"What gets me is that I feel we were sacrificed. We are the ones living next to these reactors, so that people in Tokyo can have the conveniences they are accustomed to. Everybody wants electricity, and I suppose this is the age we live in," he said. "But the nuclear plants really messed us up. We can't start thinking about our future until their situation is cleaned up."
Farther down the road, Toshiaki Kikuchi, 63, comes back every day to the eight-room inn he ran with his wife, Chimiko, because he says it just feels better to be at home — despite the broken pipes shooting water onto the street, the blanket of black mud and the 40-foot fishing boat and several cars and trucks that were tossed right up against the inn's front gate.
"I have nothing to complain about," Kikuchi said. "I'm alive. Look at all the destruction around us. I have it good."
Then he paused.
"I have what I need," he said. "But what we don't have is a future."