Visit Report: Tohoku

The 9.0 quake that hit Japan at 2:46pm on March 11 was powerful enough to shift the earth’s axis and shorten the day by 1.8 microseconds. Minutes after, a wall of water up to 37m high struck the coast of Tohoku, dissolving fishing villages and knocking down buildings like playing blocks. 3 months after the quake, the international media has moved on. However, the hundreds and thousands of survivors who are moving into temporary housing are still coping with trauma, displacement, and feelings of hopelessness.

In the past two months, Jane Best, president of RIJ, visited various towns and villages in Tohoku to identify gaps in support and gain a better understanding of the needs of the people in those devastated communities. The following is an account of her experiences.

The First Visit (April)

As we drove along the expressway towards Rikuzentakata in the beginning of April 2011, I was impressed by the fact that, although cracks were still visible, the roads had already been sufficiently repaired to accommodate the flow of traffic. It had only been 3 weeks since the quake! Along the expressway, the damage from the earthquake was minimal, with visible evidence of the disaster being a few slates which had fallen off the roofs of houses – the scenes of relative normality along the expressway, however, would only serve as stark contrast to the complete devastation of the town of Rikuzentakata.

Previously a sleepy coastal town, Rikuzentakata was flattened by the tsunami. While there has been no shortage of images of Tohoku on TV, what is impossible to comprehend until standing before the very sites of devastation is the extent and totality of the damage. As we drove into Rikuzentakata, the enormity of the disaster struck suddenly. The devastated landscape stretched as far as the eye can see! There was rubble everywhere. To see giant slabs of concrete – what must have been walls of buildings or tsunami barriers – that had been swept up and shuffled by the waves like playing cards really brought to home the terrible destructive force of nature.

After Rikuzentakata, we drove north towards the top of Iwate over 2 days. Once again, the fact that the roads were cleared and that we could drive into most villages was impressive.

The next town we stopped at was Kamaishi. There were distribution points for clothes and food in the town centre. We visited a volunteer center and talked to a lady there about the work they were doing. We were told that the volunteers were mostly locals and were involved in cleaning drains, houses, and belongings, as well as directing traffic and, indeed, any practical tasks to keep the town running. We also came across a Red Cross tent and talked to a staff member there about the work of Red Cross in Tohoku, which mainly consisted of dispersing medicine and visiting people in their homes. We were told that they were treating about 50 people a day in Kamaishi.

As we went further north, it was worthy to note that while some seaside towns were completely wiped out, others were hardly damaged. The scale of destruction seemed to depend on arbitrary features, such as the shape of the cove. During the drive north, I also noticed houses sitting on higher ground that were left untouched by the waves but overlooked scenes of absolute devastation. It is hard to imagine what the people living in those houses must have witnessed. The emotional scars, though less visible than the endless piles of rubble, cut much deeper and will remain ingrained in the psyche of these communities long after the rubble has been cleared.        

The next town we stopped at was Taro. Before the quake and tsunami, the population of the town was 4 thousand; there were only 700 survivors in the evacuation centre, which had no partitions and little privacy. We dropped off food and sanitary goods. Beside the evacuation centre, with the construction of temporary housing units already underway, I was once again struck by the efficiency of the recovery. Nevertheless, the local population will be living in these temporary housing units for a period of time. It occurred to me that projects which provide relief and hope to these communities would fall under RIJ’s funding policy – we will monitor the situation closely to identify projects as they arise.  

After Taro, we headed further north to Noda-mura, another big open town on the coast which was completely wiped out by the tsunami. My first impression of Noda-mura was that it was extremely windy and dusty, as the buildings that would have blocked the wind and dust had all but crumbled under the waves. There were people cleaning, picking through the debris searching for precious pieces of memories and belongings. Although the cleanup operation was very methodical and organized, it was heartrending to watch.

During the visit, we camped overnight in a tourist park which had a fantastic view of the coastline. Places like this shows that Tohoku is an area of tremendous beauty. I sincerely hope the shattered communities will mend and future generations will be able to enjoy the magnificent coastline as it was before the quake and tsunami.       

The Second Visit (May)

During my second visit to Tohoku in mid May 2011, we turned off the expressway at Fukushima and headed towards Minamisoma, before driving north to Ishinomaki.

We arrived at Minamisoma at 5am. The rubble had already been cleared from the land near the sea. I saw a man wandering around the area where I assumed his house once stood. As the first light of day washed over the town, the lonely figure in the wide open landscape evoked a sense of pathos – does he come here every morning?

As we drove north, there were piles of broken tractors along the road, which suggest that this area was once an agricultural heartland. How much prime farming land had been destroyed by the waves? How many people’s livelihoods have been swept away? While the efficiency of the cleanup effort never ceases to impress, the very fabric of these communities and the basis for their existence – whether agriculture, business, or industry – have been torn apart; the cleanup is but the first step towards recovery. The funding of community-based agricultural initiatives is once again an area that RIJ is familiar with, and RIJ will look towards supporting agricultural projects in the Tohoku region.  

I particularly wanted to visit Ishinomaki because many NGOs had set up their control centers there.  Upon arrival, we headed to Senshu University where many volunteers were camping, including the Peace Boat volunteers. The destruction in Ishinomaki was different from that of the other towns we visited. As a bigger town, the industry along the shoreline had taken on the brunt of the 10 meter wave, while many houses, although inundated, were not completely destroyed. As a result, the cleanup effort in Ishinomaki had a different focus, with many people choosing to go back to their homes. It is a point of concern that these people may not be getting the necessary assistance from authorities, as the main focus seemed to be on the evacuees in evacuation centers.   

After Ishinomaki, we traveled along Oshika peninsula as we had heard that people in the small villages along the peninsula were not getting the necessary support. We spoke to a few people there, and apparently there had been quite a few visits from NGOs in the area lately – an indication that things were improving.

Near Kessenuma, we visited another evacuation centre, which had housed 400 people in March, the number was down to 50 in May. Near the evacuation centre, the temporary housing units had already been erected and were fully occupied.

In Ofunato, another big city north of Ishinomaki, we met with All Hands, a Boston based disaster relief agency. It was interesting to hear about their work in Tohoku, which mainly involved volunteer management, debris cleanup coordination, and fresh food distribution. I will be meeting with All Hands in the coming months to see if we can identify longer term projects which address the evolving needs of local communities. It was also interesting to hear that, in the two areas that they were covering, there were 16 thousand people needing food in April; only one month later, in May, the number was down to 10 thousand.

Wherever I went, people would say thank you for being here. Odd groups of people would say that they were doing fine and did not need help, but generally people were grateful simply for the fact that we were there lending moral support. However, moral support alone is not enough. While the cleanup effort and the dropping numbers of people relying on assistance are impressive, the terrible stench drifting from the devastated towns only serve to remind us that recovery is long from over.


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