TAGAJO, Japan — From the window of a bus, Elder Patrick Hiltbrand recognized the streets and buildings around him. He saw his old apartment, the places he shopped for groceries and the streets where he proselytized as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thursday, three months after being trapped on the second story of an LDS Church meetinghouse while water from a massive tsunami consumed the city below him, Hiltbrand returned with others from the Sendai Japan Mission to help rebuild this community.
"It is a weird feeling to realize the last time I was here cars were piled up on top of each other," said Hiltbrand, who is from Pocatello, Idaho. "It feels good to be able to serve people and help people where I was able to see what happened to them."
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami, which struck Japan March 11, left 15,401 dead, displaced thousands and destroyed more than 551,000 homes, according to Japan's National Police Agency. To date, some 8,146 people remain missing.
The largest earthquake to ever hit Japan also damaged the cooling function at key nuclear plants in northern Japan, triggering fire and radiation leaks.
In the hours after the disaster, Hiltbrand and his companion took refuge in the LDS chapel here, and then walked in knee-deep water towards Sendai. Eventually an LDS Church member drove them to the mission home.
Days later church leaders in Salt Lake City moved them and other missionaries serving in Sendai and Tokyo — cities with limited food, water and fuel and severely damaged infrastructure — out of the areas of concern.
Holladay's Shauna Tateoka, wife of the mission president for the region, said it was two months before the missionaries returned.
The first day back in Sendai, the missionaries attended a mission conference. The next day they did what they had wanted to do since the earthquake and tsunami; they returned to the disaster zone and started cleaning up.
Thursday was their second opportunity to service tsunami victims.
Surveying the destruction around her, Tateoka said the devastation is why the missionaries were sent away. "To be able to come and help has been a real blessing in these young people's lives," she said. "They have taught these people. They love them."
Tateoka said the missionaries work so hard, she is not sure they were given a large enough project. "We will be done in a few hours," she thought when they received the assignment to clean one home. "I thought, 'You had better give them a couple more.' "
Holding a digital camera displaying a photograph of two very dirty, but very happy, elders, Sister Yuri Bennett, a senior missionary from Pleasant Grove, agreed.
During the last project, the missionaries also removed sludge — a thick, stinky, contaminated mud that covers this area — from victims' homes and yards.
"It is good to get into the areas that have been damaged and to come and help people," said Elder Blake Ovard of St. George. "It is good to restore and take care of some of the damage that has been done."
He added, "We are thankful to be back and doing what we can do. We could do this everyday and be happy with it."
Looking at the damaged housing units around him, Sendai Japan Mission President Reid Tateoka said he is sure missionaries knocked on these doors before the disaster.
Working to restore this place is a healing activity for the missionaries, he added.
"They watched the devastation come through this area," he said. "They watched the people they taught and love see all their belongings washed away. Now to come back is a real special time."