Tons of mud, debris hamper Sony's tsunami recovery

A crane lifts a huge clump of mud and drops it into a truck. Moments later another truck rolls by carrying the remains of a mangled car. This is the scene at Sony's Sendai Technology Center on the afternoon of April 1, three weeks to the day since a tsunami washed through the area.

The staff has been working for days to recover the factory, but their work will go on for months longer.

Electronics production bases up and down the eastern coast of Japan were sent offline by the 9.0 earthquake, but few were directly hit by the subsequent tsunami. Sony's plant in Tagajo, near Sendai, is one that was. A wall of water, mud and debris about 1.5 meters high washed through the facility

It's been three weeks since a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit east Japan. At Sony's Sendai Technology Center, they're still cleaning up.

The tsunami didn't just flood the area. It's as if it picked up the terrain, shook it around and dumped the remains wherever it wanted.

The factory is Sony's principle production base for professional video tapes, blank Blu-ray Discs and other media products, and the tsunami means Sony won't be able to make some of these products for months to come. TV broadcasters and film makers are already facing a potential shortage of HDCAM video tapes for portable TV cameras.

Journalists are not permitted inside the factory, but a walk around the edge of the large complex is enough to get an idea about the clean up facing Sony. (Exclusive video of the factory, clean up and current state of Sendai Port is available on YouTube.)

The area immediately outside the front gate is a monument to the power of the tsunami. Wood, plastic and metal lie among destroyed cars against the factory's front fence, and completely block the sidewalk. Labels from Sony professional video tapes flutter in the breeze, having been presumably pulled out of the factory when the tsunami waves retreated to the sea.

There is thick mud everywhere.

Along the east side of the facility a high water mark, about 1.5 meters, runs in a straight line along the once white fence. Several apartment blocks lie next to the factory and the inhabitants have yet to clean up. A car sits at a 45 degree angle against an electricity post, a makeshift fire burns to heat water, and work goes on to salvage items from a community kindergarten.

A residential area behind the plant is slowly drying out.

The entire contents of the first floor of most of these homes are being placed on the side of the road for rubbish collection. There are huge piles of personal belongings throughout the neighborhood. Televisions, toaster ovens, baseball gloves, tea cups, video tapes, comic books -- the destroyed items are as varied as the lives affected by this disaster.

The tsunami came through the factory grounds with such force that the back fence of the facility has been flattened in one place. Cars and other debris lie in a canal just beyond the destroyed fence.

It's not easy to see inside the Sony factory but through spots in the perimeter, workers can be seen going about the messy clean up. Many were wearing masks, protective outfits and boots.

"We don't know how long it will take to resume production," said Sue Tanaka, a Sony spokeswoman in Tokyo. Sony is still cleaning out the mud that covered much of the ground floor of the factory and hasn't begun to evaluate damage to machinery. It will be months rather than weeks until the factory is back to full strength, she said.

As bad as the situation at the Tagajo factory is, some nearby companies have it much worse.

The Tagajo plant sits on the edge of the port area, about 1.5 kilometers from the sea. Nearer to the water, the destruction is much greater.

It was there that the tsunami waves, already packing a heavy punch, picked up cars, trucks and machinery and turned into a frighteningly destructive force that left nothing, no matter how strong, untouched. Entire buildings were demolished, electricity poles and traffic signals were flattened horizontally and stripped of what they carried, and the contents of buildings and warehouses were scattered everywhere.

A Sony warehouse near the sea was also damaged. The first floor was leased to a local fishing cooperative and the wave appears to have washed through. It also hit the second floor where Sony has offices. Behind the factory the roadside is littered with debris, including a host of Sony products and electronics test gear, but it's impossible to tell where they came from.

Everything in sight is mangled and destroyed.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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