On March 11, 2011 one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded was epicentered off the coast of Japan. But most of the devastation—including many of the over 15,000 deaths—was due not to the shaking but to the powerful tsunami waves that traveled up to six miles inland.
Five years later, many of these communities still face a long road to recovery. Entire towns were obliterated in a matter of minutes resulting in over 200,000 Japanese residents who were forced to relocate, either temporarily or permanently. That meant many places had to endure years of debris clearance before a single new building could go up. You can see the progress—or sometimes, lack of—in these sets of photos: the first was taken in the days after the tsunami, the second in 2016. Use the sliders to navigate.
Entire buildings were toppled by the waves in Onagawa. After spending years clearing the debris, workers are now busy raising the ground level several feet. Trucks bringing fill dirt are a familiar site along the coast.
A ship relocated by the tsunami sat in a residential part of Kesennuma for two years. Many destroyed buildings have been cleared by 2016 although road repairs are still underway.
A bridge mangled by the waves in Kesennuma was cleared by a bulldozer in the days after the tsunami but a year later still had not been fully repaired. Basic infrastructure like new power and phone lines also finally started to go up by 2016.
Although some buildings survived the tsunami’s wave in Minamisanriku, many were ultimately demolished due to structural problems. Any one-story buildings left needed to be modified to include an emergency shelter from future tsunamis. In the 2016 photo you can see a yellow second story was added to a surviving building.
Photos by AP Photo/David Guttenfelder and Eugene Hoshiko