Disaster Relief Trip

Last week I heard that my friend Doug Wilson was planning a trip with a friend to the earthquake/disaster zone to deliver relief supplies and volunteer for work in the area. I called him to see if there was anything that I could do, and was invited to go with them. I got on the phone to friends and collected money and supplies from people that I knew. Yesterday (27 April) we rented a van and drove up to one of the worst-affected areas, the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Along the way we stopped to get more food and supplies that were on a to-buy list that we received from the NGO, Peace Boat.

The drive took about 4 hours, and on the way we had to pass through the 30-kilometer “stay-indoor” zone set up by the Japanese government. At this point noone is allowed entry into the 20-kilometer “no-go” zone around the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, but between 20-km and 30-km evacuation is still optional, although the government does advise staying indoors. We passed through this zone and headed farther North, to the coast. Along the way we began to see cars and rubble that had been left in rice fields by the tsunami when it retreated. That was nothing to compare to what we saw when we finally got to the coastal area around Ishinomaki.

A relief center had been set up at a college, close to the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki, from which volunteer efforts were being coordinated. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces had set up a tent camp and comm center close by as well, and the area was very active with military trucks and helicopters going to and fro. Many tents around the college provided accommodation for volunteer aid workers who had come up to the area to help. We dropped off our vanload of supplies, about $1,200 worth, at the Peace Boat depot, signed up for volunteer work the next day (today), and then drove over to the coastal area in the van to look around.

As we came over the top of a hill, the devastation suddenly hit us. The whole area had been turned into a slew of wreckage and rubble – no longer recognizable as a town, it looked more like the biggest garbage dump you’ve seen – only worse. The roads had been cleared by this time, but that was about it. Everywhere lay twisted metal, wrecked vehicles, smashed appliances, tattered scraps of material. The whole area had the stench of decaying rubble and dead fish. Most residences had been completely destroyed – nothing left but concrete foundations peeking out from underneath piles of rubble, the walls, roofs, and everything else torn away and churned into the mass of unrecognizable waste that was strewn everywhere the eye could see. Some larger concrete buildings still stood, their windows broken out, scraps of cloth blowing in the wind, clutching shards of broken glass. Other buildings had been tipped completely onto their sides – what we initially thought was a wall turned out to be the underside of the building. Railway lines lay twisted and rusting amid the wreckage, train cars lay battered far from the rails, tossed into the sea of rubble as a bored child might do with a toy. About 1 kilometer from the coastline we found a battered fishing boat stranded near the side of a mountain, surrounded by smashed cars and other wreckage. Higher up on one hill, amid the shattered ruins of a graveyard, another train car lay on its side, leaving us in shock at the power that it had taken to move that hunk of metal so far from where it belonged. Indeed, being there in person didn’t make it any easier to believe that such a thing could happen – that such a thing had indeed happened. Everything seemed so surreal that we were left speechless at the sheer scale of it – things were just not the way that they normally are in the box that we call our regular, daily reality. I put some of the photos and video clips together into a video that I’ve put up on YouTube for the purpose of sharing this experience with others in the hope that they might be inspired to do what they can to help.

We had dinner at one of the few places open for business in the inhabitable side of the city, which had been protected from total annihilation by a hill that separates it from the beach side. Still, vehicles had been washed down the streets on this side as well as the tsunami churned up through rivers and inlets to submerge most the roads in the city. After it retreated, everything had been left covered in mud. Although the roads had been cleared and were navigable, dirt, garbage, and ruined furniture and appliances lined the sides of the streets. Some roads were blocked by smashed vehicles or even fishing boats that had been tossed up out of the harbor right into the streets of the city.

There was a hotel open, however, and we were surprised at how clean and well-kept it was. After dinner I talked with the proprietors, an elderly couple. They told me that the modern doors for the hotel lobby had prevented much of the water from coming in – they were only flooded with about 10cm of water. After the tsunami, their parking lot and grounds had been left covered with mud. They had refused volunteer help to clean it up, sending the volunteers on to do more urgent work, and this elderly couple had filled 60 large bags full of mud and debris themselves. The lady and I talked at some length, as she wanted to express her thankfulness to the foreigners who had come to help, saying that it’s at times like this it becomes obvious how we really are all the same. Even within the town, she said, the disaster had brought people together. Rich and poor had all been brought down to the same level – the only things that many people had were what was on their backs. Everyone had lost members of their families and had to rely on each other for comfort. This woman’s ability to see the silver lining was so encouraging, she had a wonderful spiritual strength about her.

It rained very hard during the night and early this morning, and when we showed up at the volunteer center for work, we were told that volunteer activities had been canceled due to the heavy rains. This was a big disappointment as we had looked forward to doing more than simply delivering supplies, as happy as they had been to receive them. But more rain expected in the afternoon, jobs to get back to and the rental van to return, we unfortunately had to head back to Tokyo. We were glad to have had the opportunity to organize our own aid trip up to Miyagi, and hopefully this will provide some inspiration for others to do the same. They will be needing help up there for a long time to come. Thanks to all of our friends who bought supplies and contributed money for us to buy supplies with. Without your donations the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Please keep the awareness that this is an ongoing situation and will be for the foreseeable future.

Posted on April 28, 2011, in Life in Japan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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