A search team member looks out at the debris in Sendai.
A search team member looks out at the debris in Sendai. - 

Kai Ryssdal: Rob Schmitz -- our reporter in Japan -- headed out this morning to do a story on tsunami refugees in Yamagata, the city in northern Japan he's been working out of. So he gets in a cab and the driver proceeds to get completely lost.

Rob asks him why he doesn't know where he's going, and the guy says, 'I'm not from here. I'm from Sendai.'

So that's where they went, 37 miles to the center of the earthquake zone. Here's Rob.

Rob Schmitz: The clock on the wall of Nakano Elementary School is frozen at 2:47; the exact minute when the earthquake hit six days ago and wiped out parts of the city. Then came the tsunami. Today, there's a house resting upside down in the school's swimming pool.

A search team ventures out into a sea of debris surrounding the school. Cars are stacked on top of each other. Lumber is everywhere. Look closer and you can see personal items: key chains, family photos, a child's half-finished math homework. Reminders of those who lived -- and died -- here.

The search team pokes at the ground with tools, tossing aside warped dishwashers and bent-up bicycles. Forty-six children from this school are still missing.

Yuki Satoh and her daughter Yukiho dig through the mud, too. They're looking for photographs, home videos, anything they can find from their house, which isn't where it was a week ago.

Yuki Satoh: My house was by that tree, way over there. The tsunami carried my house nearly a mile away to the next neighborhood, so I'm looking for the trail of belongings it left behind.

She's managed to find an old photo album of her daughter's. Inside, the only photographs of her children she has now. She's doing all she can to dig up reminders of her old life, but nothing softens the harsh reality of here and now.

Satoh: I was working at a warehouse and my husband was a fisherman. But I don't know what we're going to do now. I don't even know if I still have a job or not.

In the absence of an economy, those who have lost everything have created another one. Only this economy isn't based on profit. It's more of a barter system.

Men at an evacuation center in Sendai cut down lumber left behind by the tsunami. They hand it over to a group of women, who use the wood for fire to heat up some miso soup. Inside, their children are sweeping and mopping the floors and making everyone's beds. This communal spirit extends beyond the evacuation center, too.

An employee at Nigiwayi Ichi grocery store asks people lining up for food to limit themselves to 10 items so that there's enough for everyone. There's still a massive food shortage in Sendai, and on top of everything else that's going wrong, a snowstorm today prevented the few supplies out there from coming in. Stores here could choose to gouge desperate customers, but they're not. Tomohiro Otowa is the manager.

Tomoshiro Otowa: We haven't had a cashier, and that was inconvenient for the customers, so we've been selling every item for one dollar to make it easier on everyone.

Back at the evacuation center, Massamotoh Satoh chops a block of wood. A week ago, he was a fisherman.

Massamotoh Satoh: I was on the dock, tying up my boat when the earthquake hit. Then the sea swallowed my boat away, and I ran for my life.

For a man who's lost everything, he doesn't seem too stressed. He jokes around with the other men while he works. I ask him if he's worried about making ends meet. He says there are more important things to think about. He may have lost his livelihood, but he, his family, and everyone else at this center lived.

In Sendai, Japan, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz