Michael Valliant on volunteering: “before you were just seeing it on the TV; now it’s personal.”Posted: May 25, 2011
Michael Valliant, 32, who has been living in Japan for one year, volunteered as part of Peace Boat’s emergency relief operations team. Having worked previously in a 911 centre (combined fire, paramedic and police centres as well as a department of emergency management); Michael had some experience of working in disaster situations. Graciously he agreed to answer a few questions about his experience.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Ishinomaki?
We didn’t see the bad part of town until after we had been there a few days. Initially where we were was a broken city, but it didn’t look like what we had seen on the news. People were cleaning out their businesses and getting life going again. It seemed it wasn’t as bad as we had been told. At the waterfront we saw the worst of it. My impression changed, this was a totally destroyed city.
I saw shoes with broken straps on them; I saw a lot of those. The straps wouldn’t break unless someone was wearing them.
What kind of condition are the local people in?
It varies; I don’t think we saw the people in the worst condition. People were trying to get back to a normal life but kinda nervous, always ready to run. One day while we were working on the streets we had a pretty big aftershock, everyone just stopped and you could see people getting ready to run. Like a cat arching its back up, ready to go. The people that are still there are really aware of every aftershock, you can’t blame them
What was the reaction to volunteer groups?
They were looking at us funny the first few days, but after a few days there was a transition from ‘who are these bunch of weird people,’ to ‘wow they are really helping clean up’. People started coming up, asking us where we were from and getting friendly. You meet people who are on the upside and people on the downside.
What was the general focus of your daily work?
On our first few days we were mud busting (clearing mud from business and homes). We were pretty successful as we were fairly large guys and we had a good team, we worked fairly quickly. We spent a lot of time washing streets which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about, but we were pretty good at it. We washed 700 metres of road with hand tools.
The mud gets in your eyes and when a mud blister bursts its goes all over you. The mud penetrates your clothes and stuff. Washing is hard; everyone is using the same cold sea water. When you come back you are picking the mud out of your fingernails before you can eat.
How are conditions for the volunteers?
Conditions were pretty good. Water is the big thing as you are strongly discouraged from using any local resources, so you have to carry all your water with you for the day. The weather was just crazy, sunny in the day, minus one or two degrees in the night, sunny in the day again. Then wind storms and rain.
How long do you think it will take the town to recover?
The whole of uptown might be operating in 6 months, but down on the other side of the river, the industrial area got hit so hard with the wave that I really don’t know. I saw so many strange things in that area. Petrol tanks maybe 20 metres wide and 30 or 40 metres tall smashed in half and wrapped around a telephone poll. Reinforced telephone polls ripped open and flexed so many times they were bent double, the force to do that to not one but fifty of them is surreal. Distorted buildings twisted a couple of times but still standing. They will have to bulldoze that whole area, fill it up with some dirt and start again, it’s impossible to rebuild with all that stuff laying there. There were people living there too.
How did the experience affect you?
You go somewhere like that and it’s hard not to be affected. I am not a different person from the experience, but seeing a city like that and working on it, it’s hard to watch it on the news now. You are a part of it, before you were just seeing it on the TV, the distance, the objectivity has gone now, it’s personal.
What’s next for you?
First I have to let my ankle heal then I will start taking trips back up to Tohoku during the summer break. I am going to try to volunteer for a few NGOs and in different towns as much as I can.