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Today, March 11, marks the third anniversary of one the greatest disasters in recent times, the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011.

The devastating impact and lingering effects of that tragedy — especially the effects of the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant — are still felt today, three years later.

PBS Newshour science correspondent Miles O’Brien* has traveled to the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan for his current series of reports on the plant. The third installment in that series will air today on PBS. The Feb. 28 installment — a rare tour inside the plant “to learn more about the long-term solutions for stemming the radioactive contamination” can be viewed here.

In an interview for that segment with Judy Woodruff, Miles describes “the road to Fukushima “ as still being “a gauntlet of roadblocks and strict security checks” and inside the exclusion zone a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time,” on the way to “one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

No doubt, on this third anniversary, there will be many moving reports, statements and stories on the tragedy.

Secretary of State John Kerry has already released a statement remembering the horrors of that day and of the weeks and months afterwards, but also remembering “the courage of the citizens of the Tohoku region and all of Japan” and “the volunteers from nations around the world who dug deep and pitched in…and the outpouring of emotion, from public condolences to those who shared their grief in private ways – and still do.”

Among those from around the world who “pitched in” were members of the U.S. military. As is usually the case when such disasters strike, the U.S. military immediately and impressively stepped up to the plate. Some of their efforts are described here.

Three years later: 31st MEU remembers Operation Tomodachi

U.S. Marines and sailors stand during a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami three years ago on the flight deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard at sea, March 11, 2014. During Operation Tomodachi, members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron 11 distributed 164,000 pounds of food, thousands of gallons of water and other relief supplies to Kesennuma, Oshima Island, and other areas throughout the Honshu region. (Photo:DOD)

In the photo below, personnel at the Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan, participate in a remembrance ceremony in honor of the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erin Devenberg)

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In Asia, where the anniversary arrived several hours earlier, the press has already been remembering the tragedy.

JapanToday remembers as follows:

Japan on Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the quake-tsunami disaster which swept away 18,000 victims, destroyed coastal communities, and sparked a nuclear emergency that forced a re-think on atomic power.

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Many local governments will switch on a tsunami alarm siren at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT), marking the exact moment a 9.0-magnitude undersea quake hit.

Its raw force unleashed a towering tsunami that travelled at the speed of a jet plane to the coast. Within minutes, communities were turned to matchwood, and whole families had drowned.

Waves also crashed into the Fukushima nuclear plant, sparking reactor meltdowns and explosions, and setting off the worst atomic crisis in a generation.

The crippled plant remains volatile and experts say the complicated decommissioning process will take decades, as fears persist over the long-term health effects of leaked radiation. The accident forced tens of thousands to flee from areas around the shattered site.

JapanToday also provides some jarring statistics:

o A total of 15,884 people are confirmed to have died in the tsunami with another 2,636 unaccounted for. Searchers still find human remains.

o About 1,650 Fukushima area residents died from complications related to stress and other problems following the accident.

o Among almost 270,000 evacuees from the tsunami and Fukushima, about 100,000 are in temporary housing while others found shelter in new cities or with relatives.

o Japan has so far built only 3.5 per cent of the new homes promised to disaster refugees in heavily affected Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.

And just yesterday, Justin McCurry at the Guadian reports the disturbing news that the Fukushima nuclear plant operator may “have no choice but to eventually dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.”

Some poignant reminders of that tragedy three years ago are a series of e-mail letters an American woman living in Sendai, Japan, at the time of the earthquake sent to family and friends immediately after the tragedy.

While some of the letters describe the earthquake and tsunami which she herself had survived, they are mostly about the countless inspiring and unsung acts of kindness, compassion and humanity that she observed among the survivors: the human spirit displayed by her own neighbors and total strangers in times of tragedy and chaos.

The woman is Anne Thomas, an English teacher who had lived in Sendai for 22 years and who continues to live and teach there.

Japan Anne

Anne Thomas walking among ruins (Photo: Courtesy Anne Thomas)

I described one of her letters as follows:

The letter starts:

Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.

The writer concludes:

Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don’t. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.

Thank you again for your care and Love of me.

In between, the letter writer tells us about the stoic nature of the Japanese people, their concern and caring for each other and for others—perfect strangers—their humanity, their continuing respect for the law and for orderliness even during such desperate circumstances and about the writer finding beauty and hope amid chaos and misery.

Thomas’ collection of letters went on to be published in the book Letters from the Ground to the Heart — Beauty Amid Destruction, a book in which “Anne makes the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances profound – capturing our collective, global empathy” — a book that makes appropriate reading this anniversary and a book available at Lulu.com and Amazon.com.

Japan letters from the heart

Best of all, proceeds from sales of this book benefit survivors of the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

To learn more about this book and about Anne Thomas, please click here, and to see how you can help the victims of the tragedy, please click here

* After leaving Japan for his series on the disaster, Miles O’Brien traveled to the Philippines for other upcoming stories. There, he dropped a heavy camera case on his left arm. The injury became life-threatening. And, during emergency surgery, Miles’ left arm was amputated above the elbow, according to PBS.

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Dorian de Wind, Military Affairs Columnist
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