Japan faces its next huge chore: cleaning up after the quake

The mess looks endless, and cleaning up after the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, with Japanese officials saying losses may total up to 25 trillion yen, could take five years.

Where do you even start? Do you start by carting away the Chokai Maru, the 45-metre ship that was lifted over a pier and slammed into a house in the Japanese port town of Higashimatsushina? Do you start with the thousands of destroyed cars scattered like discarded toys in the city of Sendai? With the broken windows and the doorless refrigerators and the endless remnants of so many lives that clutter the canals?

In the first days after the tsunami slammed into Japan's north-east coast on March 11, killing more than 10,000 people, it seemed callous to worry about the cleanup. The filth paled beside the tragedy. Now, nearly two weeks later, hundreds of communities are finally turning to the monumental task ahead.

The mess looks endless in Japan, and hauling it away seems unimaginable. The cost? No one really knows, though the crisis is emerging as the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, with Japanese officials saying losses could total up to 25 trillion yen (Dh1.1 trillion). The World Bank says reconstruction could take five years.

So there's nothing to do but start.

Mayumi Hatanaka began with the knee-high mud that had flooded into her little seafood restaurant in the small seaside city of Shiogama.

"It's been four days, and we've been working, working," she said, standing beneath a sign that promised food "Straight From The Fishery To You."

She and her daughter were scraping the muck down their driveway and into the street. The thick, dark goo looked almost volcanic. Workers hired by the city used a gargantuan lorry-mounted vacuum, normally used for well-drilling, to hose it up. The noise of the pump and the sucking splutter of the hose nearly drowned out her voice, and she had to shout to be heard.

Simply carving out an aisle in the restaurant took three days, Ms Hatanaka said, so she has no idea when she'll be able to reopen. "I think we'll never finish," she said, only briefly willing to set aside her shovel before getting back to work.

Much of the official cleanup effort so far has been to support rescue teams. Soldiers and city crews have cleared streets of debris so rescuers can get through, and some buildings have been pulled apart in search of survivors.

Now, with little chance left of finding anyone still alive, the concern is to avoid accidentally clearing away corpses with the debris.

Takashi Takayama is a city official in Higashimatsushima, a port town badly smashed by the tsunami, leaving nearly 700 people dead. He said the city, where the Chokai Maru ship was thrown ashore, is still cleaning up from a big earthquake in 2003, and still paying the bill for that earthquake as well.

"I don't know how long it will take," he said. "The last time it was just parts of houses that were destroyed. Now it's the whole house. So I don't know how we'll do it."

With city workers desperately overworked, officials turned to a local association of construction companies to help. Those private contractors helped clear the roads and have started piling up debris in small hills, soon to be small mountains, on city land near the port.

Japan is a country where separating trash into its various components is almost sacrosanct: there are the burnables, the food items, the array of different recyclables. Takayama is already dreading the arguments when disaster-weary residents refuse to categorise their rubbish properly.

"Sorting everything out will be the first challenge," he said.