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Originally published Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 6:31 AM

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‘Facing the Wave’: devastation and heartbreak in the tsunami’s aftermath

In “Facing the Wave,” Gretel Ehrlich vividly tells the story of the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami that ravaged Japan’s northeast coast. Ehrlich will discuss her book Monday, Feb. 25, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Gretel Ehrlich

The author of “Facing the Wave” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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‘Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami’

by Gretel Ehrlich

Pantheon, 240 pp., $25

On March 11, 2011, the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that occurred at sea off Japan’s northeast coast claimed thousands of lives. Homes, schools, temples and whole towns were swept away or buried in mud and wreckage. Those fishing vessels that didn’t manage to flee were flung on land, sometimes blocking roads, which had been twisted and covered deep in debris. Almost 400 miles of the Tohoku region was devastated.

Too, the 49-foot-high wave that disabled four Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors caused huge clouds of toxic steam to vent when electricity and backup generators failed. Cooling seawater used to delay meltdown released pollution now “considered the worst maritime contamination disaster in recorded history,” Gretel Ehrlich writes in her heartbreaking new book, “Facing the Wave.” By June, when she made the first of three visits to the area that year, Fukushima Daiichi had become “a radioactive wound surrounded by ghost towns.”

Ehrlich, the author of “The Solace of Open Spaces” as well as novels, poetry and other nonfiction, puts her considerable skill to work in “Facing the Wave,” which blends observation and retrospection gleaned from travels with friends and guides. Long a student of Japanese art and poetry, her reverence for this Asian culture allows her to add personal perspective to the vivid reporting about people whose lives and world were so utterly changed.

Hundreds of thousands of evacuees took refuge in temporary housing, she notes. Homeless or unable to go home — a “no-go” zone prevented those who had lived near the nuclear-power plant from returning — they suffered snowy winter weather amid uncertainty, the loss of loved ones and livelihoods. Ice factories had been destroyed, preventing fishermen from preserving any catch even if they had been able to deploy nets in a sea fouled with the dead, poisons and rubbish.

“Don’t breathe. Don’t swallow,” Ehrlich writes as they travel a coast gray with crematorium ash. “Stay covered. Knee boots, gloves, face masks on ... An odd smell pervades — one that is hard to pin down. It is decomposing plants, fish, and flesh, and the mineral smell of bodies being burned.”

But among the criticism for the government’s handling of the crisis, amid stories of looting and suicides, Ehrlich notices a priest bowing at a shrine by a ruined building. She hears of much generosity, of people sharing food and clothes, music and stories, of people rescuing animals from the no-go zone. In a cemetery, monks set up all 1,600 fallen gravestones. A carpenter builds a new shelter for an ancient bronze bell. On Katsura Island, a man planting cherry trees and sunflowers says, “The flowers are important: a small gesture, but a symbol of being alive.”

When Ehrlich returns in September, “The euphoria of survival evident in June is now tinged with despair. A futureless future looms.” She finds herself unable to question mourners. What could she ask? They are all grieving. Daily, there are aftershocks. The weather is hot and humid, the air full of bugs and radiation. Typhoon floods damage what new crops have been planted.

In December, many people are still missing. A friend tells Ehrlich the government is selling toxic rice to developing countries. But while “courage and self-discipline are evident everywhere ... the pain of loss is staggering ... ” Accompanying Ehrlich on these difficult but sometimes joyous journeys is reading that’s often hard to bear, but too compelling to set aside.

Former Seattle resident Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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