PORTLAND – Tsunami becomes a household word, along with names in Japanese:

Saito, a village on the northeastern coast swept flat; Takeo Oyama, one of the survivors, a 48-year-old worker; Toshio Abe, at 70, who heard the siren warning, ran and climbed a hill a mile from the beach, looked back 20 minutes later to watch the giant wave rise up and over his village, smashing houses with a thunderous roar.

Images of the devastation lie spread before me in an open newspaper, the sounds here a calm hum of conversation, dishes being gathered up from tables, sunlight on my white porcelain coffee cup.

Outside, everything is where it should be, curb lines unbroken in downtown Portland along Free Street, the red bricks of our sidewalks in place, secure.

This morning I am able to tread water in the easy backwash of work completed a day before.

In Noda village, rescuers search for bodies in the chaos of debris. In Miyagi, 2,000 bodies.

In a photo, I look past a man, hands in coat pockets, walking away along an empty road, a flat expanse of rubble on either side.

Not a house left standing, nothing but him, road and mid-stripe curving toward the sea, a narrow blue band ahead, a few distant islands along the horizon no different than the view of islands here across Portland Harbor.

STUDY IN CONTRASTS

Three sea gulls perch on the roof edge of One City Center, white breasts turned to the early, low sun. Another soars above in a brilliant blue cloudless sky.

A man comes walking across the red brick plaza, a paper coffee cup in one hand. I hear someone ruffle and snap a deck of playing cards at the table behind me.

“Radiation worsens, threatens disaster” read the headline five days into the disaster. Radioactive fuel rods, or what’s left of them in the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants, are glowing.

More than 140,000 people within 20 miles seal themselves indoors to shield against radiation from the quake and tsunami crippled nuclear plants.

A Japanese official assures radiation levels are dropping, but radiation nine times background levels are detected 170 miles south of the plant near Tokyo.

“I worry a lot about fallout,” said Yuta Tadano, a technician at the Fukushima plant. “If we could see it, we could escape, but we can’t,” he said.

Takeo Oyama, Toshio Abe, Yuta Tadano, did they promise you jobs, good health insurance, when government and industry sought support to build nuclear power plants? Did they say not to worry about an accident?

MANY ASSURANCES

Here, over and over we are assured nuclear plants are safe. One of our senators, Joseph Lieberman, says your evolving disaster “calls on us in the U.S., naturally, not to stop building nuclear power plants.”

Our president — who campaigned to develop green energy — is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear reactor construction.

His 2012 budget calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees to subsidize more nuclear power and setting aside $800 million for nuclear energy research.

Toshio, where are you walking today? Here, great snowbanks lining our streets have shrunk to small, gray patches, speckled with dirt.

The air is cold, the sun warm, dark wet swaths of snow melt spread across streets and roads, warm days ahead. But I can’t stop thinking: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima.

– Special to The Press Herald