Alaska braces for debris from Japan's tsunami

(CBS News) SEWARD, Alaska - Folks in Alaska are bracing for a wave of debris from the tsunami that hit Japan last year.

An estimated five million tons of debris was washed into the sea - including boats, cars, houses and buoys. 

In 14 months, some of it has drifted 4,000 miles across the Pacific, and is beginning to wash up in Alaska, with much more to follow.

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The harbor in Seward, which opens up into the Gulf of Alaska, has the first large scale evidence of wreckage from the Japanese tsunami making it across the ocean and now washing up on beaches.

It is a disturbing sight, a wilderness beach that is littered with plastic bottles, fishing gear and big chunks of yellow foam believed to be insulation from ruined Japanese buildings swept to sea when the tsunami hit.

Chris Pallister leads beach cleanup crews in Seward each summer.

"It's just far more than we've ever had come in at one time and I would guess that the influx of debris in this is just the first wave of the tsunami debris," said Pallister, a beach monitor and the president of Gulf of Alaska Keepers.

Pallister said the first time he took a helicopter ride above the beach he "was shocked and kind of stunned by the magnitude of it all ... Today, (when) I saw that styrofoam, I just felt like crying."

On the shore was a plastic fuel container with Japanese writing on it. It is the kind of lightweight item that floats and can be blown by the wind so it got here fast. It is expected debris like this could hit beaches along the West Coast, down to California.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.

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