Heather Sevicke-Jones

I was not living in Japan when the disaster struck; I was still living in New Zealand. New Zealand and Japan suffered disasters weeks apart from each other and I never got the chance to help in New Zealand before I left. I wanted to help in Japan because the people of Ishinomaki suffered so much and people in Japan have been so kind and generous to me.

Whenever a disaster happens I want to help the victims and affected communities as much as I can, but often it is not easy to be physically involved in recovery and rebuilding efforts. Living in Japan made it easier for me to get to Ishinomaki and volunteer.

I also wanted to help because although I live in Japan, Ehime is so far away from the affected area that sometimes it seems like a different country. I wanted to understand for myself how bad the scale of the disaster was.

I am glad I was able to help after the first anniversary of the disaster because now, as people in other countries begin to forget about the disaster, I can use my experience to educate them about the situation and hopefully generate continued support for the Tohoku region and communities in Ishinomaki. I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my junior and senior high school students in Ehime about the disaster.

A stopped clock at a school in Ishinomaki city. All school buildings- and clocks in Japan are almost identical and as an ALT on the Jet programme, I think seeing destroyed schools was one of the most emotional experiences. Seeing something as recognizable as a clock brought home the magnitude of the disaster to me. This could have been my school or my students’.

I was surprised by the fact that some parts of Ishinomaki city were undamaged, while in other places there was literally nothing left. I felt shocked over the scale of the destruction to the buildings that are awaiting demolition. Sometimes I was amazed at how much has already been cleaned up. At other times I was struck by buildings that remain virtually untouched after a year, such as an apartment building near where we worked in Samenoura.

In many apartments in this building, things remained destroyed as they were on March 11. Tatami had been forced back and dragged forward by the power of the tsunami, while cell phone chargers, heaters and tv satellite dishes remained dangling off balconies. As a teacher, I was shocked, and saddened by the state of the schools. There was one junior high in particular that we drove past that had been badly damaged, but students continued to practice baseball outside. I thought Ishinomaki was beautiful. I think this is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan.

A damaged household shrine that someone had placed on the side of the road in Samenoura, Ishinomaki.

I spent three days in Samenoura – about a one hour drive from Ishinomaki city – helping

collect and string together oyster shells. We helped local fishermen who will put the shell strings into the ocean to harvest hoya. It will take another 4 years for the hoya to grow large enough to be harvested.

I spent one day in Ogatsu-cho helping to move stone into the town hall and cleaning up some of the fire station sheds. Ogatsu cho is famous for its hard slate which is used to make calligraphy inkwells and roof tiles. I think working there had a big impact on me because on our first night in Ishinomaki we were shown a DVD recording of the tsunami hitting the town. The film had been recorded from the roof of the town office, which we worked in. I think this place impacted me also because of all the debris that was still there. In the fire station sheds there was still mud and some water, as well as objects like tires and PET bottles stuck to the ceiling. And behind the sheds we found a car that had been washed there.

I helped make fields for 3 days in the Kitakami area, and the Mizuhama area which are rural communities in the outlying parts of the greater Ishinomaki area. These were the days when we had the most interaction with the locals. The farmers told us their stories of the disaster and we were welcomed into their temporary housing. One couple, the Sato’s, ate with us in the community rooms of their housing area. Mrs. Sato prepared some delicious wakame dishes and a coconut pudding.

A damaged four story apartment building in Samenoura. The tsunami must have reached somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd floors.

I hope it has helped to restore the spirits of the local people a little and I hope they don’t feel like people are forgetting about them now that it has been over one year since the disaster. One day, we were told that some of the fishermen we worked with ate lunch with the volunteers for the first time that day. Before they would eat separately because they found it hard to accept help to do a job they had done all their lives. I hope that they do not feel bad about accepting the help and they can form strong relationships with volunteers.

I think some of the people we worked with wanted to tell us about their experiences so they had someone to talk to about it. I think it was an opportunity for them to be able to do this, and for us volunteers, to be able to hear first-hand accounts of the way the disaster affected the people of Ishinomaki.

For myself, I think the work has given me a greater appreciation for my friends, family and the fact that I have a home and a job. It has given me experiences that I can talk about with other people, to help generate continued support for the region.

After our work in Samenoura, we were invited to visit again four years from now, when the first season of the new hoya will be harvested. Although the work we did there was only minimal given the scale of rebuilding the fishermens’ business, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to know that we had helped them on their road to recovery. I would like to revisit here in four years.

We also experienced a magnitude five earthquake that went on for about 20 to 30 seconds, causing everyone to head for the door. As someone who has grown up in New Zealand, which is constantly at risk of various natural disasters, I was constantly told to ‘be prepared.’ But when disasters don’t affect us for a long time, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety. I think this experience taught me how important it is to always be prepared.

Students practicing baseball outside a damaged school.

I was surprised that we spent a lot of time interacting one on one with people. I had thought we would work with bigger community groups. Another interesting aspect was that the people were so willing to invite us into their temporary housing. People were very generous even though they had lost everything. Japanese people are very generous so this isn’t surprising, so much as it is humbling. I think the range of emotions I felt during my time there surprised me. There were many happy times, and I made some amazing friends with other volunteers. But there were also times when I had to stop myself from breaking down, particularly at times when we had to work in sites that were people’s homes. This made the disaster so much more personal to me, but I knew I had to keep going for the people of Ishinomaki, as they are the ones who have suffered, not me as a volunteer.

I think the stories that the survivors told us will have a lasting impression on me. On our last day volunteering we were helping to make a field in Aikawa close to a ruined elementary school. The farmer we worked with told us that he wants to rebuild his house higher up on a hill so he can see the water and will know if another tsunami comes. In New Zealand sea views are a prized real estate feature, but his reason for wanting a sea view was very different to any I had heard before. This was one of many times in Ishinomaki when I realized what is really important in life – friends, family and community. The people of Ishinomaki we worked with were fishermen and farmers. They lived their lives simply, growing their own food and working as part of a community. I think I have learned a lot through their determination and the way they approach the mammoth task of rebuilding their lives.

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One Comment on “Heather Sevicke-Jones”

  1. Saha Asit says:

    Having perused your realistic writing I come to know that your heart is not bound by the borders of political world of fragmented geography of this planet. Whenever I hear your voices from the Ground, I feel myself as united with the whole people of this living world. Thanks for your feelings and sense of mankind.


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