Sister cities after the tsunami

The March tsunami destroyed the Japanese town of Otsuchi, but not its bond to the town of Fort Bragg, Calif., which is determined to help save its sister city

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

The term "sister cities" often connotes little more than handshakes and photos to mark a relationship between two towns. But when Otsuchi, Japan, was decimated by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the town of Ft. Bragg -- thousands of miles due east across the Pacific Ocean in California -- came to the aid of its sister city with powerful emotional and financial support. Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

The following script is from "After the Wave" which aired on Oct. 2, 2011.

No matter how many pictures you've seen, no matter how many reports you've heard, it's a shock when you get there. It wasn't the nuclear disaster or the powerful earthquake that swept the northeast coast of Japan into the was the tsunami, a black wave, darker than a nightmare.

The man who stopped the tsunami
The tsunami that devastated Japan couldn't touch the village of Fudai - thanks to one man and his plan to hold back the waves

No town was hit harder this past March than Otsuchi. In a matter of minutes, at least 1,500 people out of a population of only 15,000 were lost. Otsuchi is so remote, very few people ever get there. But 14 years ago, a group of Americans formed a bond with the town, a bond that has only grown deeper since the tragedy.

The world was so mesmerized by the nuclear accident, that after awhile these coastal towns were forgotten. We went to Otsuchi ourselves to see what has become of a town that's on the brink of extinction

We got there just in time to witness a haunting ceremony - drumbeats for the dead. Buddhist monks marched through the remnants of this 800-year-old town, chanting a requiem.

Otsuchi reminds one of Hiroshima 66 years ago. Nature can be as vicious as an atomic bomb. Ten percent of the population was wiped out. It was a fatal lesson in the fragility of civilization. The earthquake alone was so powerful, it actually lowered the ground level of Japan and moved the entire island eastward by eight feet.

Every day, high tide brings a flood. Even months later, the survivors are still living in temporary housing. But everyone understands temporary can last a long time. This is Otsuchi before the tsunami. And this is when Otsuchi stopped - 3:25 p.m., March 11, 2011.

Ken Sasaki: This is my house...

Bob Simon: That's your house?

Sasaki: Yeah...

Ken Sasaki works for City Hall in a city that has disappeared.

Simon: How long had you been living here?

Sasaki: Uh, over 20 years.

Simon: Now, when you came back here the first time after the tsunami, was there anything of yours left here?

Sasaki: Nothing was left.

Ken was in a meeting near the harbor when the earthquake struck. Thirty minutes later he heard an ominous noise coming from the ocean.

Sasaki: Oh, it must be a tsunami. I have to run to uphill. And then I turn back. That was so...

Simon: It must have looked like hell.

Sasaki: Yeah, it must be the hell.

Nine of his relatives were killed by the tsunami - aunts, cousins - Ken-san, as he's known, had to live out of his car for three weeks.

Sasaki: It was terrible. It was so cold. No gas. No whiskey, no beers.

Ken-san is as unique a character as you'll find in Japan. A music lover and guitar player, he learned English listening to the Beatles.

[Sasaki, singing: Get back to where you once belonged]

The ocean has taken things away from Ken-san before. When he was two, Ken-san's father died off Otsuchi's coast in a fishing accident. When he was a boy, Ken-san would gaze out to sea looking for his father. He always wondered what was on the other side of that ocean. When he grew up, he took out an atlas and traced his finger across the Pacific. It landed on the town of Fort Bragg, California.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich.