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'Tree of Hope' stands after Japan quake, tsunami as a symbol of struggle

The 'Tree of Hope,' one of 70,000 fir trees in a Japanese town to survive the tsunami, has become a figure to rally behind.

February 28, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The World Bank ranks Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster as the most expensive in world history: $285 billion.

But what was lost goes far beyond a monetary measure. You can't put a value on lives and homes. Some communities may never recover.

See raw video of the Japan tsunami as the Ofunato seaport is destroyed by waves

As we continue our series on the disaster, we visit the town of Rikuzentakata, once a stunning coastal community with land that was fertile and rich, now a sad swath of land with very little life.

As I drove through Rikuzentakata, I found it astounding that tens of thousands were living there just a year ago.

The tsunami hit this place with remarkable speed and power. The wall of water was 36-feet high. Those who thought their upper floors would keep them safe were wrong. Even designated evacuation shelters failed. Many died in places they were told would be safe.

Rikuzentakata City Hall was used as an evacuation center. Eighty people evacuated to the building, but only 10 survived. Those 10 were on the top floor and said the water went up to their chest.

I came across the Uwabe family, two sisters, along with their children, who lost both their parents when their home was swept away.

The family explained to me that since the disaster struck on March 11, families turn out to mourn and pay tribute on the 11th of every month. It happened to be Feb. 11 on the day I was there.

Ironically, the Uwabe family is also the community's florist. They lost their shop in the disaster but have set up a temporary one up the hill.

It was a busy day for them as many turned out to purchase flowers and pay their respects. In a cemetery on a hill high above the town, my interpreter told me the gravestone we stood before belonged to one family who had seven members killed in the tsunami.

See raw video taken in the seaport of Ofunato during the 2011 Japan 8.9 earthquake

Masako Unoura, who lives in Los Angeles, grew up in Rikuzentakata. She lost two aunts that day. She took me to a lookout point to reminisce about happier times.

"We have so many houses, so many greens, lots of cars," she said. "It was a live town. Although the community itself is maybe 30,000 population, it was full of life? now look at it." The first rescuers to arrive here described it as "wiped off the map." Even the town's fire department was defenseless. One video on YouTube shows a fireman's desperate attempt to get away, screaming at everyone he sees to run. Forty-nine of the town's firefighters were killed.

Eighty percent of all the homes in Rikuzentakata were swept away. The few buildings left are simply shells. Rubble is piled 20-feet high. Even all the shrubbery and vegetation is gone.

In a restaurant made out of a shipping container and sheet metal, the owner makes the most of what's available and restarts his business. Among the customers, I found a table full of weathered farmers drinking soju and smoking cigarettes. They told me the contaminated soil has put them out of work for at least five years. With no other jobs available there's little else to do.

Every day is a monumental struggle. A year later people, are still trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives while mourning for the lives they lost. It's close to 0 degrees, but the painful cold goes unnoticed. The citizens here have endured far worse.

The 70,000 fir trees that lived in Rikuzentakata were once a beautiful forest that sheltered the community from the wind. When the tsunami came, every single one was ripped down except for one. That one tree, named the "Tree of Hope," struggles to survive. Experts said its chances to survive are slim because the soil has been contaminated from the salt water. That struggle has become a metaphor for this community.

The "Tree of Hope" has become a figure to rally behind. Tourists show up to take pictures of it. Across Japan, you now see posters, photos and even books of the lone tree.