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working on the floor in C’s house, and Y’s wall demo

Y San is local man who is great friends all hands. he works in real estate in tokyo, but has come back to ofunato to help his parents, who are now staying in temporary housing. today, i was on a team working nearby on a floor for Mr. C’s house, and Y san wanted to use some power tools to take down a cmu block wall. which was accomplished, with a lot of swinging of hammers, and concrete dust!

working with all hands in the Y’s house

i had arrived at all hands right in time for dinner, which is a yummy spread that local ladies cook for the volunteers every night. along with a free place to stay, all hands provides food for volunteers, which includes dinner and bentos that are delivered for lunch everyday. i was glad to see that they had this system in place, as supporting local businesses instead of having volunteers bring their own instant cup ramen is something that i had been thinking about before. also, breakfast was bread and peanut butter, and as an american living in japan, the thrill of seeing a giant jar of peanut butter never wore off, at least not in the 10 days i was there!

every night there is a meeting where the current jobs and future jobs are discussed, at then people sign up for the work they want to do the next day.  my first night, there was a new job on the board, a gutting job for the Y. family. i signed up for the bilingual slot on that team. in the morning, our team of 5 gathered up our tools and were dropped off at our site.

mrs Y is the grandma of the family. she remembers the tsunami that came here in 1960, after the Chile earthquake. she had just moved to her house near the sea to join her husband several months before. she had been processing oysters with other local women when the alarm rang. since no one had felt the Chile earthquake, they didn’t expect the tsunami. but they evacuated to the top floor of the oyster processing building, and were safe. this time, not everyone in the neighborhood was so lucky. mrs Y’s house is above the road that runs along the long narrow port that is the center of Ofunato. we mentioned that there is a beautiful few of the ocean and the port, and were told that it is strange for them to be able to see the sea. there used to be a row of houses below the road as well, but they were destroyed and now there is only a row of empty lots, with low concrete walls marking their boundaries. mrs. Y tells me this story during a break on one of the later working days, resting her arms on the fence looking towards the ocean.  she points to the lot below and to the left of the house: that neighbor, who has 1 grown daughter, went back to her house to save some important things, and she was there when the wave came. as the water came in to the house she thought it was the end, but survived.  now this woman is living in a temporary housing unit nearby–people moved in last sunday, 4 months after the disaster. the neighbor from the lot on the right is still ‘missing’. which means that her body hasn’t been recovered.

there were about 2 meters of water in the house, the water lines are still visible on the walls and the windows. we remove the floorboards, take them outside and wash them. mrs Y had broken her foot in the days before the tsunami, so she was in a wheelchair at that time, and was driven to the city office to evacuate. in the days and weeks that followed, she got around on crutches, and couldn’t clean out her house. her four granddaughters, from elementary school to high school age, helped to this work–carrying out the heavy waterlogged tatami mats.  on the first day, a neighbor lady stops by to see what’s happening. she seems old, but very tough! she’s recently done the similar process in her house-removing the floor boards and cleaning the space underneath. she takes one look at what we are doing and jumps into the middle of our work to show use how to remove the boards whole, without cutting them. she is tiny, but powerful, and uses a crowbar easily, demonstrating upper arm strength that probably exceeds mine. later on, mr. Y tells us that she rides around on a motorcycle, and that her boat landed in the Y’s garden after the tsunami.

mrs Y, who grew up in a farm family, has replanted the small garden between her house and her daughters house. she says the garden was an ‘experiment’ and that she had no idea if the plants would grow.  but they are, and one day early this summer, her granddaughter came to her and said “grandma, the plants came up!”  mrs. Y brings us fresh corn on the cob that was picked that morning from a farm that belongs to someone in her family.

mrs. Y’s daughter is a science teacher at a school that was destroyed and has been holding classes in a gymnasium more than an hour away. because of tsunami, and the fact that students are living in evacuation centers and temporary housing, this year many schools had a very short summer vacation and are now continuing to hold classes.  on the last day i was at their house, we finished cleaning under the floor a little early, and i volunteered that we could help with anything else they needed help with, so we pulled some weeds that had grown in the open spaces.  i felt bad leaving them, and i wished i could have continued the next phase of their work, but unfortunately it was postponed until after i left.

a research trip to sumita cho on my day off

several months earlier, i had hear about the temporary housing in the town of Sumita cho from my sensei. the mayor of Sumita had already had a plan (before the earthquake) that if there was a disaster and need for housing reconstruction, they would use the local timber industry. and after march 11, they did. the temporary housing in Sumita is made of wood, which makes it much more comfortable than the steel or pre-fab housing, which is hot in summer and cold in winter. i’m also pretty sure that it’s a more pleasant living environment both inside and outside these small houses.

temporary housing is the second step of the process of Japanese disaster recovery housing, and are built using money from the national government, with the local municipality contracting out the construction to private companies.  they are usually modular, may be reusable, often steel or prefabricated. they cost a lot of money to build, and a lot of money to dismantled. they are designed to be lived in for up to 5 years, which allows them to be built without following the building code requirements for permanent housing. in the case of tohoku, the scale of the housing loss and the unknown factors in permanent housing reconstruction mean that it’s impossible to know how long people will live in these units, which are still being built 5 months after the tsunami in an attempt to meet demand. however it’s almost certain that people will be living in them for more than 5 years.

temporary housing units are small, less than 30 square meters or 830 square feet. the cheapest and lowest quality ones built of steel are especially hot in summer and cold in winter. after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, temporary housing was built in large numbers in remote and locations outside the city, and people were awarded a unit based on a lottery system, which prioritized older or vulnerable people. the result was that community connections were destroyed, as old neighborhoods scattered and people were randomly assigned to new temporary houses. this was later compounded by a similar process for those who entered the new disaster recovery public housing in high-rise apartment buildings. the loss of community connections was especially severe for the older generation; many elderly lost all connections to friends and neighbors, and died a solitary death without anyone noticing their absence.

on the individual house scale, the design and implementation of temporary housing can also give residents more control over their own rehousing process.  the temporary houses in Sumita are small but detached single family units, grouped in clusters at each of 5 sites located around the town. the houses are arranged in several rows, with a main path and space to grow flowers in containers. these little wooden houses can be moved and reused later, or they could be expanded to be part of a larger more permanent house.

on tuesday, which is all hands’ day off, i went on an little excursion to try to see these wooden temporary houses. i successfully found out which bus to take and where, and after a 30 minute bus ride up into the mountain (towards tono) i got off in sumita, which is a basically a 1 street town. however, as i had heard before, it’s very true that weather can quickly change, and be completely opposite at the coast and up in the mountain. so whereas when i left ofunato, it had been bright and sunny, when i arrived in sumita, it was thundering and in the middle of a downpour. and it a completely brilliant move, i had brought neither my umbrella or rain coat. the wonderful old lady at the little tabacco shop by the bus stop didn’t sell umbrellas, but she very kindly loaned me a umbrella, and after dashing into a number of tiny shops on the shopping street, i would up with a rain poncho as well. i set off for the city office (across the river), where they obliged my request for a map of temporary housing. although i got a little damp, i was able to visit the 2 sights that were in walking distance, and catch the bus back to ofunato. and even chat with some local folks on the street, who wanted to know what i was doing. i think if i had stayed in town another hour, i might have been invited to someone’s home for dinner.

Govt to examine using debris as biomass fuel, yomiuri shimbun, 7/26/11

The second supplementary budget for fiscal 2011 contains funds for the Forestry Agency to research using the massive amount of wooden debris generated by the March 11 disaster as fuel for biomass power generation, it has been learned.

Passed in the Diet on Monday, the budget includes about 100 million yen for examining the possibilities of biomass energy production. Using debris would kill two birds with one stone–clearing away wreckage and generating electricity.

In the third supplementary budget, which will contain significant spending for disaster reconstruction, the agency is seeking about 10 billion yen in subsidies for building power plants, and aims to establish five or six in disaster areas.

However, a number of issues remain, including the unstable supply of raw materials.

The agency predicts that of the about 19 million tons of wooden debris believed generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami, about 5 million tons could be used as fuel.

However, Fusao Nishizawa, head of the Biopower Katsuta biomass power plant in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, predicted all the wooden debris created by the disaster would be used up in two to three years.

Tokyo Institute of Technology Prof. Takao Kashiwagi said that in addition to using debris, “timber from forest-thinning should be collected and supplied to woodchip producers, thereby linking [biomass power generation] to the rejuvenation of forestry as well.”

Woodchips can be used as biomass fuel.

(Jul. 26, 2011)

arriving in ofunato

after an overnight bus from kyoto to sendai, in the morning i went to finally visit the sendai mediateque (designed by toyo ito, who was part of my undergrad thesis and the path that lead me to japan). then i took a 4 hour bus ride to ofunato to join up with all hands, a u.s. based volunteer organization who has been there for several months.  it was my first time to volunteer with all hands, and after 3 trips with gakuvo/international students it felt a little strange to be going to tohoku to work with another group.  actually, i had almost gone to join all hands at the beginning of may, in the week of consecutive holidays known as golden week in japan. but at that time, when i was pretty sure that all volunteer organizations would be swamped, nikkei youth network (with gakuvo, the japanese student volunteer program) had confirmed my place in their international student group immediately, and as an international student in japan, i was very excited to join them.  i love going to tohoku as part of a student group, and i have meet some wonderful people on these trips. but i was also interested in staying a little longer, and experiencing other volunteer organizations and systems, especially those who have a longer established local presence. also, ever since my experience volunteering in new orleans after hurricane katrina, i’m pretty sensitive to issues related to situations when outside volunteer groups are coming in to local communities, and i was both concerned and curious about how this relationship was playing out in ofunato. i had been trying to follow the activities of all hands online (along with other organizations–to include on this website), and i had seen a presentation by ryo, a former volunteer who gave a talk at google (it’s a great video, and describes the experience of the first few months very well:–meig7k), which gave me the impression that there was definitely a need for more japanese speakers with all hands. basically, i was just hoping that as a japanese speaker, i would be able to be useful.

the bus to ofunato passed near rikuzentaka, from the mountain side, and i recognized a view i had seen in early april-looking down from a road to the complete devastation of the city below. as we passed by temporary housing and views of destruction, i wanted to take a few photographs, but it didn’t feel right on this bus, full of local people for whom this area is their home. in april i had also passed through ofunato, whose narrow and deep port area had been completely destroyed.  coming into the city on july 24th, i saw areas where the clean up process was evident, but then followed by areas that seemed untouched, with huge areas with piles of debris.


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