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Video made Japan tsunami 'more real'

By Kyle Almond, CNN
updated 12:48 PM EST, Fri March 9, 2012
  • It has been one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan
  • The disaster unfolded live on televisions around the world
  • Nearly 16,000 people have been killed, according to official numbers
  • Damage has been estimated at about 25 trillion yen ($300 billion)

(CNN) -- One year ago, the world watched as a massive tsunami engulfed entire communities in northern Japan.

Live television footage showed waves as high as 30 feet rushing into coastal cities, tossing around boats, cars and rooftops just an hour after one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded.

"I thought Japan would disappear," one elderly survivor said in the immediate aftermath. "I thought Japan would disappear under water."

Earthquakes are not uncommon for Japan, which rests on one of the world's most active fault lines. But the one that triggered the tsunami on March 11, 2011, had a magnitude of 9.0, making it the fourth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900.

"My wife and I stood outside and basically held on to the outside of our house," resident Matt Alt said on the day of the quake. "We couldn't even stand up. We have never ever felt anything on the magnitude of what we experienced today."

The videos from last year's disaster are still astonishing today. One shows a man trapped in rushing waters, desperately clinging to a telephone wire. Another shows people running away from the tsunami, barely escaping before a wall of water barrels into their homes.

Many other people, however, were not so lucky. As of Friday, the official death toll was 15,854. An additional 3,167 people are still missing.

The total damage from the disaster has been estimated at about 25 trillion yen, or $300 billion.

"The house you're seeing here wasn't here before," one man said, showing his neighborhood's damage a week after the tsunami. "It was swept here by the wave. The houses that were here were completely washed away."

With the popularity of mobile phones in Japan, last year's tsunami was one of the most recorded natural disasters in history. Amateur videos surfaced quickly, making it easier than ever for people around the world to empathize with the victims, said Tokyo-based technology consultant Steve Nagata.

"Because you had all of this very real footage, it made the incident much more real in people's minds," Nagata recently told CNN's Kyung Lah. "They no longer have to imagine what a tsunami is. They saw it live. ... To be able to do this in near real time and to do it to audiences across the globe is unprecedented."

Many people lost their homes in the tsunami but were fortunate to find shelter at nearby evacuation centers.

In Ishinomaki, Japan, evacuees used old boxes to set up "cardboard cities" while they waited for temporary housing to be built.

One of those evacuees, Yoshichi Suzuki, had a positive outlook as he stayed with his grandchildren at the shelter.

Two months after the tsunami, Suzuki was nursing several plants that he had salvaged from his damaged home.

"They were washed away by the tsunami but still survived," he told Lah. "And they're blooming with flowers now.

"Just like the plants, we must go on and live."

To see more amazing video footage from Japan's earthquake and tsunami, check out the complete coverage rail at right or click here.

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