JUNEAU — Two years ago, the yellow buoy was hanging as part of a restaurant sign in the coastal community of Minamisanriku in northern Japan when an earthquake triggered a tsunami and washed it — and so much more — out to sea.
About a year later, the buoy was found more than 3,000 miles away on a remote Alaska island, discovered by an avid beachcomber who, through sheer coincidence, was later able to find the owner, who had lost her home and business. Hundreds of similar buoys have been found on beaches along the West Coast, a combination of the everyday trash that has plagued coastal areas for years and debris washed away by the March 11, 2011 disaster.
Distinguishing between the two is difficult. Just 21 items from among the more than 1,500 reports of possible tsunami debris have been firmly traced back to the tsunami, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The confirmed items include several derelict vessels, including a small boat found in Hawaii waters, large docks that have washed ashore in Washington state and Oregon and a motorcycle that washed ashore off the coast of British Columbia.
These are items that tend to have unique markings — names of people and places, registration numbers or other identifying information. The agency lists scores of other items along the West Coast and across the Pacific Ocean as potentially linked to the catastrophe.
The Japanese government estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was floating in the ocean in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which devastated a long stretch of Japan’s northeastern coast and killed thousands of people. But it’s not clear how much is still out there or what might reach U.S. shores. NOAA has said the debris is spread over an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, and that beachgoers may notice an increase in debris “over many years,” in addition to what normally washes up.
Beachcombing on Middleton Island, in the northern Gulf of Alaska, has long been a favorite pastime for radar technician David Baxter and some of his colleagues. In early 2012, there had been talk about finding tsunami debris — “a wall with a safe in it or a briefcase of money, we’d always joke about that” — but Baxter said he didn’t think it was realistic he’d find anything related to the tsunami, given models he’d seen at the time that suggested the debris would move much further south.
Then, in February 2012, a co-worker found a soccer ball. Baxter subsequently found another soccer ball — a discovery that made international headlines as one of the first identifiable pieces of debris to wash up — a volleyball and the buoy.
The buoy stood out to Baxter as a bit different from other buoys that have washed up. For example, it was hard, not inflatable, and had writing on it. By chance, when a Japanese film crew was visiting him and his wife after the discovery of the soccer ball, they panned on other items he’d found, including the buoy, he said. A friend of the restaurant’s owner, Sakiko Miura, happened to recognize it, and the owner later confirmed it was hers through a photo sent by Baxter.
FedEx, which flies regularly between Anchorage and Tokyo, volunteered to return items including the balls found by Baxter and the buoy last June. The team traveled by plane to Tokyo and then by train to outlying communities, hand-delivering the items, spokeswoman Sharon Young said.
“It was a wonderful experience, to reunite people with things that meant a lot to them and that survived this incredibly devastating situation,” she said Friday.
Baxter and his wife were recently able to talk to Miura, who said she plans to rebuild. He said he found the owner of the soccer ball his colleague found, an 8-year-old, and plans to return it this summer.
Baxter said he can’t help but be affected by what he’s found. He wife is Japanese and he said he has visited the nation several times. But it’s more than that.
“I wonder all the time, when you see (things) if the person was in the house, if they survived,” he said, adding later: “Of course, when I see the housing insulation and household items, shampoo bottles, shaving cream bottles with Japanese writing on them, yeah, it hurts a little.”