2011/3/11: The Great Divide

This was originally posted on the blog of volunteer Suzanne Jensen – please view her web site for the full entries and more information and photographs.

Because of these memories, and because I have lived here and experienced  “the kindness of strangers” so often in this country, I resolved early on that when I returned to Japan I would join in the relief efforts and do all I could to give back some of what I have been given.

Achieving this goal  took more time than I liked, and involved a search among a number of groups to find one that I could work with.  Finally I found Peaceboat, which is making a point of including foreigners living in Japan, providing English information and interpretation, and putting foreigners together in small working groups.

The planning meeting was held on May 28, and the departure is June 3 (today!).  We will be going to Ishinomaki, a small coastal town not far from Matsushima.  On March 11, the tsunami came roaring up the Kitakami River, wiping out most of the town, several schools (one school lost 75% of its students), and even some of the emergency shelters where many people had gone after the earthquake.

As I put the finishing touches on this page, my 20-kilo mountaineering back pack (Jack Wolfskin: Born to be wild, it says on its  front side.  More like, Born to be an over-burdened pack animal, I say),  my knee-high construction boots, head lamp, protective clothing, face masks, and my rolling carrier packed with all the food, utensils and cooking gear I think I will need for 8 days (how hard it is to estimate that!) waiting for me at the door.  On site, we will be provided with goggles, hard hats, steel insoles for our boots, and protective gloves. Once we get there, we will not be able to bathe, drinking and cooking water will be closely rationed, there will be no electricity, and no access to supermarkets or any other conveniences.  The only amenity still available, as far as I can see, will be cell phone service. If I wonder how I can survive 8 days of hard labour (we already know we will be on “mud busting” detail) under these conditions, I only have to remind myself that the  people of Ishinomaki have been trying to get through their days every  day for almost 3 months under these conditions.

From now until the end of the trip, I will be making posts through cell phone email. If they are rough in appearance or written expression, have pity.  There is no doubt I will be doing the posts at the end of a long day…

Ready to go
This is only the clothes and equipment. Food is packed separately…

June 3: The long overnight bus ride, with its multiple stops, the final one in a gray dawn at a deserted shopping mall. The country road approaching Ishinomaki, rippled and cracked in many places from the quake. The briefing, sitting near the independent relief workers’ campground at Senshu University in the hot sun, downwind of the portable toilets.

Arrival at our home for the week on the morning of June 4. It is the ground floor of the Kasuka Fashion factory–restored to usable condition by Peaceboat in exchange for free use of it. The confusion of trying to secure a sleeping spot in one very crowded room and a space for gear in another. Dressing in all that safety gear for the first time–it seemed to take forever. The first of the daily pep talks by “Ted,” the head of the Ishinomaki operation.

My teammates are Claire, Eric, Erica, Andria, and Rene, and our leader and interpreter is Michito. With members from 6 different countries, suffice to say that we are a truly international team. We get our first assignment: cleaning the yard and outbuildings of Takahashi-san’s house just around the corner. In spite of a late start, we manage to clear out a mountain of mixed debris and shovel out a 10-centimeter layer of dirt and sludge from a large shed, separating out hundreds of shards of glass as we go. We take regular and welcome breaks, as it is backbreaking labour and even the fittest of us are feeling the pain. As we walk to and from the site, we eye the neighborhood. The inundation point shows clearly on every building that remains standing– almost 3 meters. Debris has been mostly removed from the streets, but the houses, gardens, and empty lots are still full of it.

Takahashi house–cleanup in progress

Crew takes a break

Visit Suzanne’s blog “2011/3/11: The Great Divide” for full posts about her week-long stay and volunteer activities in Ishinomaki


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