today was my last day volunteering with all hands in ofunato. I’m sad to be leaving, and it was sad to say goodbye at tonight’s meeting. it does feel like the project is winding down, but I wish I could have been here longer.
my job this morning was cleaning the base (there’s a housekeeping rotation). since cleaning is only a half day job, I signed up for the photo rescue project in the afternoon. one of the things that I’m happy about this trip is that I had a chance to join the photo project, which was just getting started when I was here last. and I wanted to spend my last day cleaning photos.
I think one of the nice things about the all hands project tohoku is the broad range of activities, from distribution to temporary housing to photo retouching, and of course gutting and cleaning ditches.
there is a bento lunch provided to each volunteer at the worksite everyday, and since I was joining in the afternoon, I rode with the bento delivery, which was actually a great thing to do on my last day. since photos is furthest away, actually in rikuzentakata, not ofunato, we stopped by each of the other projects first, and even drive by the first gutting project I worked on.
this morning, as we were on the bus that takes us from the residential facility that is hosting us down to the office/base in town, our bus had to stop at the railroad crossing, because the bar was down. since the rails were completely destroyed by the tsunami and rains aren’t running here, this was a first for almost everyone on our bus. actually they are doing test runs, and as we sat there waiting this morning, with sun streaming in the windows, a single blue locomotive chugged by. at this sign of recovery, we all spontaneously started clapping, and seconds later burst into laughter because we were adults clapping at a train engine. it was a nice moment to start off the day.
today I went back to the K’s house, where all hands is working on mudding under the floor and gutting the walls. the team was split into 2 groups–the gutting folks and I was on the dishwashing team. there are A LOT of dishes in that house, although apparently many broke during the earthquake–the best ones, as the china cabinets tipped over.
Mr K is a craftsman, who makes the stone blocks used in calligraphy. today under the house, they found a picture of mr and mrs K, with a display of his stones at a big department store in Tokyo. Mr K’s back was hurt during the disaster, either by falling or something falling on him. Because of his hurt back, he can’t make the stones anymore.
Before the disaster, 8 people lived in the house, I would guess 3 generations. Now the K’s live in temporary housing, which is close enough to be visible from her house. There are 65 units, and the people from this local area moved into them. But Mrs K says the temporary units are cold, and they are deep in the valley, so they don’t receive much sunlight. She said that coming to her old house makes her feel comfortable. But I think she has good connections to friends/neighbors, since today after giving us snacks, she left for a while and didn’t come back until the end of the day, saying that she got caught up having tea and chatting with 7 friends.
yesterday I worked in the park, placing some bricks and digging some dirt. the park looks amazing–completely different from how it was in july, when it was still being cleaned up. it has lots of new playground equipment and structures. towards the end of the days, some kids showed up and were very excited to come into the park and play. I talked a little with the grandma that came with them. she said that they all live in the same block (they were different ages, around 6 or 7 kids), and although they had a park near their homes, it’s been use for temporary housing, so the kids have nowhere to play. as we watched them run and jump in the sand area over and over again, it was clear how much they need this kind of space, and how much they will use the park. the opening will be on nov 12, the last days of the all hands project in ofunato.
today was our day off, and I took a long long walk near the river, and back to the center of ofunato–actually where I had visited in the beginning of april with K sensei and M sensei. now it’s been cleaned up quite a bit, and bulldozers are still at work picking up rubble, mostly concrete. but because of the sunken land levels, there are large areas that are flooded there now.
although there’s progress in cleanup, the scale of damage is still overwhelming. although thinking back on the situation of new orleans 6/7 months after katrina, everything here seems more on track.
I stopped by my favorite coffee shop and chatted with the owner a bit (I had already been there in july, and heard how they opened the cafe a few months before the tsunami, and what was damaged). we talked about how the life in temporary housing will be cold in winter, especially for the elderly, and she told me how many people are now in a difficult place emotionally–up until now they have made a lot of effort to do what need to, but now they are feeling like they just want to give up, that they don’t have anything to live for really. this is what she hears from her customers. she thanked me again for coming here to volunteer, and said that it means a lot for the people here.
then I stopped in to the little community space by jr sakari station (sakari is on part of ofunato city, where all hands has its base). the railway was destroyed by the tsunami, and the train car that was sitting in the station has been used for some community activities as well, since a few months ago. they give out tea and sell some local products and crafts that are handmade by ladies living in temporary housing. I think they are supporting both the livelihood of disaster victims, and also raising money for the reconstruction of the train line. they said that it’s been decided that the train will be back up and running again in 2 years, in the same location–along the coast, but elevated in some places, which hopefully can act as a kind of barrier for future tsunamis.
when I was here in July, there were fewer Japanese speakers, so sometimes it was hard to find a translator for each volunteer work group every day–this meant that as a Japanese speaker, I joined more gutting jobs as a translator. now however, there’s – reduced number of volunteers, and no shortage of Japanese speakers. so today was my first day during this visit to join a gutting team, and there were other translators in our group.
the K’s are an elderly couple, with a big house that they built 8 years ago, using a traditional Japanese carpenter. their daughter is in her 60s, so they must be in their 80s at least. Mr. K has a bad back, and some pain, but Mrs K gets around pretty well. but cleaning up and repairing their house would be impossible for them on their own–she said that if her kids helped, it would still take 2 months.
we are cleaning all the many dishes, etc. that survived the tsunami, and then also gutting and mudding the house.
the K’s are very very sweet. they told us they think of us like a family. mr K was telling stories about when he was a boy, and they didn’t have any money for food, so they would eat the bread that the u.s. and australian soldiers threw away, so now he is grateful to have food to eat and a roof over his head. he also said that since he was very young, he had been taught that there are boundary lines between countries, but that from the experience of volunteers coming from all over to work together, he now feels we don’t those boundaries.
today I got pretty drenched doing deliveries to temporary housing. we went to this area, in rikuzentaka, which is also the location of the photo rescue project.
today there was a large memorial event in Rikuzantaka for people who had lost their lives in the tsunami, so many people were not home in the morning.
most of the houses in this site are detached single units (around 170 total), and the families tend to live in the few connected row house areas of temporary housing. we saw a few kids today (it’s Saturday, so they don’t have school. there were 1 little boy and 1 little girl who were very cute and followed us around chatting constantly. when I said I was a student in Kobe, the little boy who is 7 said “I’ve been to Kobe”, when I asked why, he said because Kobe suffered a disaster, and his town had also suffered a disaster. and that it took 3 days to get there.
but there weren’t very many kids around, and many of the houses have only 1 person living in them, including some very elderly folks (we went door to door dropping off hot water bottles, etc.). one women who lives very close to the photo project came to the door with a exceptional energetic attitude and was very friendly and chatty. she told us that her husband had died in the tsunami, and that today she went to the memorial event. but she was so positive, and said that she had many friends around, and that many people died in the tsunami, so there were many others around her who shared her feelings.
but mostly people seemed very quiet and withdrawn. I had always thought that detached temporary housing is the best option (more privacy, more space, more control over your own living environment), but today I realized that it’s not enough–if the people living there don’t have a way and/or reason to come outside and interact with others, the form of the housing, whereas it looks nicer, may not serve them any better than the big barracks type temporary housing after the Kobe earthquake, or the high rise recovery public housing built later.
photo cleaning seems a never ending job. actually, for the people who have been working on this project for months, huge huge progress has been made. and I am very impressed with their dedication, day after day washing photos, the same over and over. while there are highlights (cute baby pictures, weddings, etc., or reuniting photos with their owners) there are also continuous disappointments, when no matter how hard you try, a photo can’t be saved, or you go to wash it and the image just floats off the paper into the water in front of your eyes. it’s disheartening. but there are so many photos to try to save, so there’s nothing to do but try to move on to the next one.
yesterday I joined the distribution of winter goods to temporary housing. the main thing (and the one most residents were excited about) was hot water bottles. all hands was doing distribution of relief goods to evacuation shelters for a while, but just recently they started bringing winter goods to the temporary housing.
since support from the government officially stops (for food, utilities, etc.) when people move out of evacuation shelters and into temporary housing, it’s difficult for residents. actually there were many cases of people not wanting to leave evacuation shelters for this reason.
in the morning, we delivered to 4 small temporary housing sites in ofunato. they had around 12 units each. and they have received some financial support from kitakami city to provide 1 staff person per site. so at each location there is one unit that is used as a kind of office, where a staff person who has been hired for a temporary period (this was unclear–2 years? Or 1 year?) is there from 9-5. we dropped off our relief supplies with this person in each place. the units seemed pretty nice, prefab but new, with carpeting.
in the afternoon we distributed to 4 sites in rikuzentaka. in these, there is no staff there, but in each site there was a designated resident who received our delivery, and helped us sort the items into bags for each resident household.
it’s hard to say which system is better–at first I thought it’s great that there’s a staff there, but actually in the areas without, the people worked together to distribute the relief goods, and seemed liked they had much stronger connections. of course it was only a glimpse at 1 time on 1 day, but today I met someone who is very familiar with disaster recovery in this area, and she also said that the support staff are from outside, and there is very little criteria for hiring them, and maybe the areas where the people are self organized are better off in terms of capacity building.
the people themselves were very kind and friendly, and thanked us so much for bringing them things. it seemed that the smaller sites that are out of the way and not easily visible don’t get very much support, as many groups just go to the large sites.
all hands has delivered or is delivering to 95 sites, and just yesterday to over 1000 people (I have to double check that information).
it seems like a really hard situation for the residents–the locations are inconvenient, and if they don’t have a car, they really can’t get anywhere. their gratitude for the small things we brought was moving, and I felt like I wanted to come back again regularly and bring them some smiles and cheerful words, along with more things. at the same time it made me want to cry.
one lady had made a little rock and moss garden outside her house, along with some flower planters. at the last place we stopped, they had a tent set up, and some donated items underneath it. they were really happy to see the socks and underwear (men’s boxers) we had brought, and were funny and cute, the ladies calling out to the old guys to come back for undies! at each place, the contact person has a list of all the people living there, but can also tell us without looking at it the ages of all the kids, and what size diapers they need. at our last stop, where we brought socks, we gave them an assortment of socks for the 8 kids (up to high school) who live there. the ladies set them out for the kids to choose their own socks, saying they each would like to pick out their own. it’s a little thing, to be able to pick your own socks, but it’s something that these kids probably haven’t had much of a chance to do since the tsunami.
it was my first time to visit temporary housing in japan. in some ways it reminded me of indonesia, where each local unit has a leader who takes care of official paperwork on the local level.
it also made me think about the need for more human interactions. after the Kobe earthquake, there were a number of people who died solitary deaths in temporary housing and also permanent recovery housing.
the foot bath (ashiyu in japanese) is one activity meant to help with this. but in Kobe, there were also the apple girls, who were students who brought apples to the residents, and chatted with them. now I really understand how and why this is important.
I’ve only been here for 3 days, but already I’m experiencing the volunteer time warp, and it seems much longer. I think a big part of the reason for this is that it’s the only time I’m really able to shut out most of the rest of the word, and not be distracted by many things at the same time. it’s also hard to keep track and keep writing about each day, but I am going to try.
today was my 2nd day working on the photo rescue project. it was nice to already know the basics and be able to keep working where we left off on monday, a photo album with many pictures of a small boy, and his little sister. after thinking of them as little kids (the photos went until around the time he entered elementary school) I realized by looking at the date that actually he’s a little bit older than me, not a little boy at all! which means his young mother in the photos is the age of my mother. I wonder if the album was hers; I hope she is alright.
we also found a letter a girl had written to her parents when she entered jr. high school, thanking them for everything they had done.
the area is rikuzentakata, which was completely destroyed, and the tsunami came very quickly. I don’t know the details, but i think a lot of students were killed. another room of the photo project building holds mementos and other items found in the debris, including several piles of elementary school children’s backpacks. the bags, which are such an icon of Japanese children, are like a punch to the gut–a visceral reminder of that day, when everyone dropped everything and ran…if they had enough time.
today I got taken on an excursion by 2 rice farmers. to back up, all hands volunteers had helped with the rice harvest of their cooperative, and this day was a kind of thanks for that, and chance to hang out with them again. except that most people who had actually helped with their project have already left or had other plans today, and so it was just me and another girl who had been a leader for the rice harvest, they didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t been there; they enjoyed retelling the stories and talking about who all the volunteers were. they mentioned over and over how much fun this years’ harvest had been because of the help from the young volunteers (usually the work is done by old men only) and also how much faster.
I was reminded of the 1st time I volunteered in Tohoku, and was told ‘people here are hesitant to talk, but the old men especially are weak against girls’ so that we could perhaps get them to open up. like the oyster fishermen I met that first week in May, the farmers today seemed to enjoy our company–although actually they never stopped talking, so perhaps not so shy as fishermen.
but I was reminded once again about why we are here–and perhaps the encouragement that comes from working alongside them is much more important to the local people than the actual ‘work’ that is accomplished.
we drove through kamaishi, and visited the giant kannon statute overlooking the bay-kannon is there to protect fishermen.
kamaishi port area is quite cleaned up compared to how it looked in april. we didn’t go into the center of town though.
then we visited the traditional thatched roof house museum in tono.
on the way back, we passed through sumida cho, where there are wooden temporary houses. our friends said the wooden houses were good because they are moveable, and that people will have the change to buy them for 200,000 after 2 years.