Sunday, 7 August 2011

Disaster Relief with International Disaster Relief Organization

Home on the third floor of Funakoshi elementary school.
View of behind the school from the third floor.
This is where we eat, live, and sleep, all together.
Team leader Rob, is on the left. Small but powerful and he talks in Kansai dialect. We had good times working together.
The harbour is in front of us.
One fisherman told me that when he was a child there were 320 children at this school. Now there are 16, but they are all in temporary housing and going to different schools. This one cannot be used again.
No ceilings or windows in the lower floors. Swallows are nesting in there somewhere. I could not find them because they go quite when you walk around in there.
Views outside from the first floor.
This valley has not separated their garbage. It is all together. Even electrical goods. Every day the bulldozers are out there working.
Packing up the vans.
These vans have done a ton of mileage.
The view from the harbour is so peaceful. It must have been a lovely valley pre 3/11.
Unstable structures are everywhere.
My team includes teachers, students, a buddhist priest, carpenters and office workers.
This is the road to Onosaki that the self-defense forces built. At the far end is the bridge.
This was taken on the way bag. Onosaki is at the bottom of the wooded hills.

Teams beginning the garbage sort at Onosaki.
We had to pull stuff out from this mud, clear the roads of mud and make piles of sorted garbage.
I was searching for shards in the leaves. There was so much broken glass.
Those piles of garbage had mice running all over them because of food stuffs mixed in it. The step is now cleared.
Loading up a truck.

Fully loaded wood truck.
This was down by the fishery. The tide was coming in. You can see a building, in the sea, far away.
Again you can see roofs in the water. The land sinkage may be more than a meter here. We had to get this truck filled before the tide came any higher.
Riding on the wood truck.
Textiles waiting to be picked up.
79 year old woman who ran away from the tsunami, with her, (sort of cleaned up) tansu. There was no clean water to use. The bottom drawers will not open.
This is the mud in Kameyama machi in Fukushima. This is not tsunami damage. It is flood damage, but the results look similar. Piles of garbage outside all the houses and floors have to be taken out to remove this.
Our house to clean is the one on the right.
This is such thick clay that it is really easy to just slip over in it.
Pretty much dug out this part.
After a day under the floor boards. Stylish eh?
A young guy had fixed up this truck and was travelling around sleeping in it and helping wherever he could. It was incredibly well organised inside with shelves all round and everything he needed to survive. Do you like his mobile garden?
Volunteers register for work assignments.
An address by the mayor. He was so thankful to everyone.
Mashu from Indonesia, excellent bagger and Julian, a fellow under floor worker from UK.
You can see how high the water came by the railway hanging on the right side.

I went with International Disaster Relief Organisation.

Rob speaking on Youtube.

I left on August 3rd for Tohoku. It was a long journey, even using the shinkansen. First I trained to Omiya and then I took the shinkansen to Sendai. From Sendai I found that you could take a round about way by two trains, or a straighter way by train, bus and train again, or one highway bus. I chose the highway bus and arrived there at about 1pm. I waited here for about three hours for a pick-up. I had time to look around a bit, and I went to the building which had a supermarket, in front of the station. It is now housing the city office. There is still a message board for people trying to contact people. I saw in one shop window, a small tanabata style origami decorated branch, which had "thanks to the volunteers" written all over it. I had hoped I could start that day, but when I was met by Quentin, he explained that where we were going was still quite a drive. We picked up two brothers from Canada and headed off to Ogatsu penninsula. It was a small, narrow valley with some houses dotted in the trees. Only one house appeared to have a light on. Otherwise it was dark. We got down to a large, three story concrete building. It was Funakoshi Elementary School. I could see black holes where the windows had been and it looked pretty spooky. I was never a fan of empty school buildings, but this looked creepy. The floor was wet and slippery, the first and second floors had no windows nor ceilings. We went up to the third floor, where I met the other volunteers who were on a platform of tatami mats by the windows. At least there was electricity here. The clock, like so many we saw, was stuck on tsunami time. Some members were making a meal on a bottled gas stove. It was pretty much like camping in a building. We had rice and some corn. Bob Mangold, the leader, was constantly busy, but we all had fun getting to know each other a bit, sitting around the small table. The locals had also provided a pile of futons for volunteers, so the night was spent relatively comfortably.
We got up on the 4th and ate some donated muesli, which I had brought up from Tokyo. The constant mist explains the wetness of the floors, but it was in the morning that I realized just how close to the sea we were. There were only one or two houses left in the hundred or so meters between the school and the sea. What must have been an idyllic little fishing harbour, was just a wasteland. Our first job of the day, was beach clean-up. As the land has subsided, the sea throws up all kinds of wood, polystyrene and other garbage overnight. We put this into crates and then took it to a dumper for removal.
After about 90 minutes, we packed up our gear back at the school and left for the main mission of the day. We drove about half an hour, through what can only be described as a wasteland. There was still a bus, sitting on top of a bus station, a train carriage lying in a valley and destruction absolutely everywhere. We went by a the edge of the sea and came to an area where there was nothing but bulldozers everywhere, and huge piles meters and meters high, of wood and other garbage. We could have been on the moon. We went down a dirt road, made recently by the self-defense forces. There was water on each side, but it was clear that on one side it had been land before, as there were roofs and bits of houses poking up through the surface. It was the most desolate place I have ever seen. At the end of the dirt track was a bridge, which the self-defense forces had just finished building, a couple of weeks ago, before they pulled out. The area had not been reached before that, so the decomposing garbage has been there for five months. The small community was reachable only this way, and it was only open till 4pm. The tide brings in water nightly. There is no running water or electricity. The self-defense forces had emptied the houses, (probably looking for bodies, and not wanting people to go into unstable buildings) but the garbage that was people's precious things, was all just piled up outside. There was everything from fridges to buddhist alters, boxes of kimono, shoes, books, furniture, futons and it was all in stinking great piles. We cleared one street of the thick mud, which we piled up, and then we had to sort the garbage into types, wood, plastic, metals, textiles, glass. Sometimes it was impossible to tell what we were looking at. Especially because of the huge quantity of sea water and mud, and also the food products, the flies were everywhere, and there were mice roaming unafraid through the garbage. We worked with a team of young boys from Osaka, and we made huge piles of wood and textiles. Small trucks constantly came up and down and we would load them up, and they would take them to designated areas. There was broken glass everywhere, which we had to be very careful about. Occasionally we would find certificates, small items of value, or damaged (completely soaked) photograph albums. These were set aside from the garbage. While most of us were doing this, Rob and Douglas, who are both carpenters, were making a new floor for an old couple. I cannot imagine wanting to go back to live in that place, but I suppose they must have lived there forever, and want to end their days there too, if they can. As the generator Rob brought decided not to work, so all the wood had to be cut by hand. It was about 36 degrees that day, so we were all covered in sweat. We all carried water, but sweated faster than we could take it in, and we had to keep on boots and gloves, for protection. After 3pm everyone starts to leave. The whole place empties out. Rob and Douglas were struggling to finish the floor, so Hiroko, Tara and I tried to clean a little cupboard for the old lady. We couldn't understand her Tohoku accent at all, but she had a lovely smile in a wrinkled face. She said she escaped by running away up the mountain, but with her swollen feet, it is hard to imagine how she did it. Very tough! We left at four and went back through the wasteland, moonscape, and past the broken bridge, and Okawa elementary school, where so many children did not escape. A small table with flowers and paper cranes outside the school commemorates it. There was an old cemetary with scattered headstones, and nearby is a new graveyard, almost as big as the old one. So many new graves. We also passed a hospital where all the patients and staff were lost. My heart felt heavy looking at it all. In Onosaki the work is only just begun. There are more areas, along the shore that are yet to be cleared at all. The extent of the devastation is just horrendous. We returned to our school home and figured out how to have a shower using the one functioning tap and a hose. It was surprisingly good! Vegetable curry for dinner. Then a few beers around the table before sorting out gear, and crashing for the night.
We started the 5th with the harbour clean up. Some of the fishermen came and joked with us. They were funny and cheerful. Incredibly resilient. They asked Rob if he could construct some shelves for them in their new shed, for fishing gear. Rob told them we would be away for a couple of days, and when we returned, he would do it. That guy would clean up the whole of Tohoku for them if he could. He is small and strong, ex-marine, and he works like a maniac. He is funny too, and we had more than a few laughs over the few days I was there. After the harbour clean up we went back to Onosaki. I was surprised to see that where we had cleaned up yesterday was now in water to over the top of my rain boots. That meant working with wet feet for the whole of the day. In the morning we piled up more garbage and wood and loaded it onto trucks. We ate cold rice and pieces of apple for lunch. Salt flavoured candy helped to keep the salt balance in your body when working in the heat. In the afternoon we went down a bit further to a fishing business. There was a huge shed between the forest and the sea, completely surrounded by huge logs, planks and other kinds of garbage the sea brought in. We worked against the clock here, as the tide was coming in, and we had to load up the trucks and get out before we were cut off by the tide. We had never met the drivers or most of the volunteers before, but you work in teams, making chains, passing up the wood, into the truck. There are no fights or squabbles, it just happens. When you are stuck in the mud, someone gives your wheelbarrow a push. When you look red or ill, (heatstroke is a real danger) someone gives you water or tells you to rest. I was up on the wood truck and our front wheels were in the water by the time we pulled out of there to take it to the huge wood pile for pick up.
Before we drove out of there we saw a family carrying two square boxes to a little temple. They were all dressed in black. Children parents and some others. I know what was in those two small boxes, and I bowed my head. Then when we went past the elementary school there was a group of parents having some kind of ceremony at the little table. Maybe I am a whimp, but seeing the parents grieving for their small children was too much for me, and I couldn't help the tears from squeezing out. Most of the destruction just makes you realize the incredible power of the sea, but when you are faced with the intense personal loss that these people are suffering, it is almost unbearable.
When we arrived back at base, the fishermen came over and asked us to help them. There were two small trucks that had stuck wheels. They wouldn't go round at all and they needed to be towed away. They asked us to shift those trucks so that they could attach them to a winch and pull them away. We got all hands on those trucks and lifted them into the correct position. Amazing what team work can achieve. Tara and I walked up some steps to a little shrine. It was relatively untouched, but some of the huge stone steps had been cracked right into two by the earthquake. After that I helped Rob sort the gear in the truck because we were moving location for the next two days. I didn't feel like eating stew straight away. I just relaxed with a drink and stayed with my own thoughts for a while. I was trying to process all the emotions that I was going through.
Bob told us the deal on the next job. About three weeks ago there were heavy rains and both Fukushima and Niigata had huge floods. When the rivers burst their banks they leave 15 or 20cm of solid clay on everything. Bridges get taken out and landslides close roads. Kameyama Machi is a small town in Fukushima. 70% of the people are elderly. There is no way that they can take up their floor boards and dig out their houses from the mud. The town mayor asked for volunteers but everyone was already in Miyagi and Iwate, and almost no volunteer groups would go into Fukushima. These people were left alone, so Rob decided we were going there. Everyone was for it, being near the Niigata border we did not think that the radiation was a big problem for us. However the journey across Japan is pretty long. We got up soon after 3am and drove for seven hours. The place is tucked away in windy roads far in the mountains. Some roads were closed and there were diversions. The town was built a long way above the river and the bridges were also high above the river, but about three were completely destroyed. We met a Scottish artist, Tim, who lived there. He said that after the earthquake and the radiation, this flood was the last straw. He was afraid for his child, so he was leaving the town. He was so sad because he loved it, and he had been making portraits of the children there during the disaster period and putting in their ideas of how they wanted to be represented. Interestingly enough, we met some of the same volunteer teams we had seen in Ishinomaki. Amazing that when Ishinomaki has such a huge scale disaster, people go from there to help in another place. I suppose because these are the people who understand what it is like to live in a disaster zone. It was strange because we were seeing people who we only met a couple of days ago, but it was like meeting old friends. There was something we shared. We were assigned to a huge old house, and our job was to dig out the mud from where the floor had been and bag it. It was very hot and We were bending, shovelling, bagging and transfering the bags to piles for pick up. There were also areas where the floor could not be removed so we had to lie down in the mud and slide under the small space below the floor and work in the dark, lying down. It was cool under the floor, so I did not really mind being down there, covered in muck, with the worms! I don't know how many hundreds of bags we filled. There was a huge pile outside the house. Another Sheila, slipped on the mud and really whacked herself in the ribs. She had to be helped out and taken to a hospital. They said her ribs weren't broken, but she was having a lot of pain breathing. Everything is slippery to walk on, and you can land on the ground at any time. Two people working got sunstroke that day too. Afterwards some men were working spraying the road with a high pressure hose and I asked them to hose me, as I was covered from head to toe. They sprayed me and scrubbed me with a long handled brush. They thought it was very funny. Amazing what you can find to laugh about in a disaster zone!
We were told we could stay in an old inn that was no longer open for business. The family lived down stairs and we could use some space upstairs along with a couple of other teams. First we went to an onsen to get clean. Then we shopped for some supplies and two of the local guys cooked us potatoes and local vegetables. We all shared it out and talked around the table. Some guys called it a night, and some sat in the smoking room having a booze. I wanted to do neither, so I took a can of plum wine and went and sat outside to watch the stars. A local man, Wakabayashi san offered to take me in his car to see the stars up the hill. So we went high up the hill, where there is a ski resort. I could see the milky way. It was dark so the stars were really beautiful. He told me he lived with his mother, and there were almost no young people left in the town. His hobby was making paper cuts and decorations out of paper. He folded me a beautiful kanzashi out of a strip of paper. I thought it was a lovely present.
The 7th was my last day. The mayor came and gave a speech of thanks to all of us for coming to help his town. He wanted the Japanese government to remember that not only radiation is dangerous, but hydro electric power and messing about with rivers is very dangerous too. I thought the poor guy must be at his wits end. We went back to the same house to finish under the floor. The team manager told us to take plenty of breaks and not to work too fast. We could work faster than the locals and young volunteers, so it put too much pressure on them and they might try to do more than they could. It was nice to know that we had a reputation of being an experienced and hard working team, but it was frustrating too, cos we all wanted to do as much as possible in the short time we could give them to help out. I worked down with the worms again, and by lunch time the job was done. Then I had to get cleaned up and Mashu, other Sheila and I were to be driven back to Sendai to get home. It was really hard saying goodbye to the team after working with them, eating and sleeping with them for four days. We had grown to know each others foibles, interesting points, strengths and weaknesses. We had learnt to work together as a team.
The most interesting thing for me, was just how happy and helpful everyone was. No one ever says I am bored. No one complains. No one refuses to help another person. Every one says hello, please thank you. Everyone has a smile for someone else. I loved the physical work, I loved being outside, I loved cooking on my camping stove, getting to know my canteen and my rucksack again. I wished I could have stayed longer, of course, and help more, because there is so much to do. But all together, we will get there. It is going to take a lot of elbow grease but slowly slowly, bit by bit, we are somehow rebuilding Tohoku!


  1. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but the echoes of hard work you been doing in Tohoku are truly endless. Press on.

  2. Thanks, Spencer. This was really front line stuff. Yes, the work was really hard, but it was really valuable, because the people there are just too old to be able to do it for themselves. If the mud is gone, then they can get someone in to lay a floor, but if they cannot get the mud out, it is impossible for them to do anything. Onosaki seems like a hell hole. I just cannot imagine anyone wanting to go back there, but it was not my home, so I do not know what it feels like. I want to help them make it how they want it, cos it is theirs, not mine. Some people would think it was stupid to even spend the time building a new floor or whatever, when you don't know if they will be able to live there, but it meant so much for that old couple. I cannot imagine the heartache they have been through.

  3. What wonderful work you are all doing, it must be so appreciated. I cannot imagine what everyday life is like in the striken regions of Japan but posts like this help to keep you all in my prayers as newer tragedies and events fill our newspapers. Keep up the good work, it is such a good thing that you are doing for those people, helping to rebuild lives.

  4. I must say I highly appreciate the usefulness of your camping stove to make coffee in the morning, Sheila!

  5. It is worth having that little stove. It does not take up much space and those little treats like a coffee in the morning, make a big difference to my day. Also means you can cook up a little something and offer it to other people. All helps to make things go smoothly! I recommend having one of those. By the way, it was a pleasure working with you Masyhur! Good luck with your studies!