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Debris on Northwest beaches an eerie reminder

FORKS, Wash. — From a distance, John Anderson thought he had spotted another plastic float, like the hundreds he has gathered since debris from the Japanese tsunami began washing ashore along the coast.

He got closer, reaching behind a log last spring to discover one of the most memorable finds in three decades of beachcombing: a volleyball covered with inked Japanese inscriptions. Some of the writing, faded by the sun, was illegible. Other characters, once Anderson scraped away barnacles, were surprisingly clear.

"This was a shocker," said Anderson. "I wondered whose ball it was, and whether they were still alive."

On March 12, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a powerful tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people as it transformed large swaths of coastal communities into giant debris fields.

Survivors' cellphone videos captured the terrifying movements of the ocean as dark raging waters — filled with boats, houses and cars — pushed onshore. Here in the Northwest, those images also were powerful reminders of the tsunamis that have struck our coasts and are predicted to hit again.

Two years later, large areas of shoreline in Japan have been largely cleared of rubble, yet flotsam that has made a trans-Pacific journey continues to wash up on U.S. and Canadian coasts, and federal officials predict this debris will continue to sporadically pulse on to beaches for years to come.

So far, only 21 items have been definitively declared tsunami debris by U.S. and Canadian officials who — with the help of the Japanese consulates — have been able to identify owners.

They include a motorcycle, a plastic tote, and a 65-foot-long stretch of dock from the city of Misawa that lodged along a remote stretch of Olympic Peninsula shoreline in December. In the coming weeks, that dock will be cut up and hauled away by helicopter in a $628,000 salvage effort largely financed by the Japanese government.

"We don't like to leave a mess," said Tomoko Dodo, acting consulate general in Seattle for Japan, which has donated $5 million to debris cleanup in the United States and another $1 million in Canada. "(U.S. officials) say it is not our fault, and we agree with them. I think that it is a goodwill gesture. We want to show the United States our gratitude for the support we received from your country during the tsunami."

A handful of items have been returned to Japan in the past year for long-shot reunions with owners. A yellow buoy retrieved in Alaska was emblazoned with a large Japanese character, Kei, and traced to Sakiki Miura, a widow who had used the float as part of a sign for a restaurant destroyed in the tsunami.

Last June, Miura was overjoyed to regain the buoy, and decided to reopen the restaurant. "Kei-Chan has returned," she tearfully declared, according to a report published in The Asahi Shimbun.

Anderson, of the Forks area, is planning to return to Japan this summer with filmmakers producing a tsunami documentary entitled "Lost & Found," and hopes to reunite the volleyball with its owner.

So far, a translator's review of the inscriptions found a few partial names, and well-wishes that make it appear the volleyball was a farewell gift, possibly to a graduating student, from other team members. "I'm sure you will have a great life," said one inscription. "I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your new endeavor," said another.

But so far, no owner has been identified. "There have got to be other teams that they played that would recognize those names from somewhere that didn't get wiped out — you would think so," Anderson said.

Two Washington kayakers who surveyed the coast last summer found a soccer ball with an inscription that was traced to a team in a town on the northeast coast.

During one of their survey trips, they also came upon an eerie scene: a pile of house timbers that contained a child's potty, a bottle of cough syrup, a laundry hamper and a piece of a washing machine. "It was one of those slowly developing things. We realized, we were in someone's bathroom — in someone else's house," recalls Ken Campbell, a kayaker who has produced a documentary about their surveys, which is called "The Roadless Coast."