journal, ofunato, photos, repairs, volunteer

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.

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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