HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, Miyagi Pref. — Where do you even start?

Do you start by carting away the Chokai Maru, the 45-meter ship that was lifted over a pier and slammed into a house in this port town? Do you start with the thousands of destroyed cars scattered like discarded toys in the city of Sendai? With the broken windows and the doorless refrigerators and the endless remnants of so many lives that clutter the canals?

In the first days after a tsunami slammed into the Tohoku region coast on March 11, killing well over 10,000 people, it seemed callous to worry about the cleanup. The filth paled beside the tragedy. Now, nearly two weeks later, hundreds of communities are finally turning to the monumental task ahead.

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coastline in 2005, gives an idea of both the immensity of the job and the environmental hazards Japan could face for years to come.

“In Katrina, you had debris that had seawater, sewage, chemicals, gasoline, oil, that was all mixed together in a toxic soup,” said David McEntire, a disaster expert at the University of North Texas. “And you’re going to have similar problems with the disaster in Japan.”

Three years after Katrina, which spawned enough debris to cover Britain, the U.S. government had said the mess was not even close to being cleaned up.

The mess looks endless in Japan, and hauling it away seems unimaginable. The cost? No one really knows, though the crisis is emerging as the world’s most expensive natural disaster on record, with Japanese officials saying losses could total up to ¥25 trillion. The World Bank says reconstruction could take five years.

So there’s nothing to do but start.

Mayumi Hatanaka began with the knee-high mud that had flooded into her little seafood restaurant in the small seaside city of Shiogama.

“It’s been four days, and we’ve been working, working,” she said, standing beneath a sign that promised food “Straight From The Fishery To You.”

She and her daughter were scraping the muck down their driveway and into the street. The thick, dark goo looked almost volcanic. Workers hired by the city used a gargantuan truck-mounted vacuum, normally used for well-drilling, to hose it up. The noise of the pump and the sucking splutter of the hose nearly drowned out her voice, and she had to shout to be heard.

Simply carving out an aisle in the restaurant took three days, Hatanaka said, so she has no idea when she’ll be able to reopen. “I think we’ll never finish,” she said, only briefly willing to set aside her shovel before getting back to work.

Much of the official cleanup effort so far has been to support rescue teams. Soldiers and city crews have cleared streets of debris so rescuers can get through, and some buildings have been pulled apart in search of survivors.

Now, with little chance left of finding anyone still alive, the concern is to avoid accidentally clearing away corpses with the debris.

Takashi Takayama is a city official in Higashimatsushima, another port town the tsunami brutalized, leaving nearly 700 people dead. He said the city, where the Chokai Maru was thrown ashore, is still cleaning up — and footing the bill — from a major earthquake in 2003.

“I don’t know how long it will take,” he said. “The last time it was just parts of houses that were destroyed. Now it’s the whole house. So I don’t know how we’ll do it.”

With city workers desperately overworked, officials turned to a local association of construction companies to help. Those private contractors helped clear the roads and have started piling up debris in small hills, soon to be small mountains, on city land near the port.

In a country where separating trash into its various components is almost sacrosanct — there are the burnables, the food items, the array of different recyclables — Takayama is already dreading the arguments that will arise when disaster-weary residents refuse to categorize their garbage properly.

“Sorting everything out will be the first challenge,” he said.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 230,000 people in 14 Asian and African countries, left thousands of cities and towns facing a task similar to Japan’s today.

In Indonesia, the United Nations employed 400,000 workers to clear 1 million cu. meters of debris just from the urban areas of the hard-hit city of Banda Aceh.

Many of the countries affected by that disaster were less developed than Japan and lacked sophisticated waste disposal systems.

During the initial cleanup efforts, some burned debris in the open air, dumped it in makeshift landfills and used other environmentally risky methods. This led to polluted wells, inland waterways and nearby seas.

Japan will presumably use state-of-the-art incinerators and sanitary landfills, though technological prowess doesn’t guarantee there won’t be problems. In the United States, there were allegations of corruption by cleanup companies after Hurricane Katrina, including claims that hazardous debris was improperly dumped in landfills.

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