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visit to izushima island, onagawa, and public housing

izushima island is a small island, with 2 fishing villages, near onagawa town (politically part of onagawa).

in onagawa, about 300 of the disaster recovery public housing units will be built by local contractors using timber. my friend M san has be involved in organizing the local building companies into a cooperative agreement, so they can be awarded these contracts from the town. the single family detached public housing that is currently under construction on izushima is the first of these projects.

being an island, building on izushima is inconvenient–workers and materials all have to be transported by boat. workers take a small ferry from onagawa every morning, and return every afternoon. building materials are transported by other boats, but both can be interrupted by bad weather, causing construction delays. the current goal is to complete the used before obon, the traditional holiday in august that honors ancestors and home-coming.

however, compared to most of the other sites for public housing in onagawa town (many of which will be raised before construction starts), the land area for public housing on izushima is easier to use, and construction could start earlier.

the other public housing (multi-family reinforced construction) that is already completed in onagawa is the public housing that was build on the municipal athletic field, which also took advantage of available flat land for construction. (although in the process, there was the loss of recreational space).

since the public housing under construction on izushima is the first in this new system of building cooperatives, and different parts are being built by different companies. there are about 30 units planned for construction, 24 in the main area of izushima  (under construction now) next to the current temporary housing, and an additional 7 for the other village on the island (where the land is currently being cleared).

while i was in onagawa, i had a chance to visit izushima with M san, and see the current situation.

we took the early morning ferry that the construction workers take. it was a cold morning, and in warm ferry on gentle rocking of the waves, most of the construction workers were quiet or resting, but the ones who were speaking were using almost unintelligible (to me) local dialect, a smooth lulling sound.

on the island, we got a ride to the work site, where construction is nearing completion of some of the units, and foundation work is starting on others. there are 4 house types, that residents can select from.

architecturally, the houses look great. the materials are high quality timber, the labor is local, and organized with a local cooperative of construction companies. i know that this must not have been easy to organize.  but in the context of accepted principles of housing recovery of the international community of practice, this project is doing all the right things.  this project is also well-designed considered in the context of post-disaster housing recovery after recent events in japan (1995 hanshin-awaji earthquake in kobe, and the 2004 chuetsu earthquake). this project is a small scale collective relocation and will provide residents with high-quality single family public housing. the current temporary housing on izushima are all on one site, but the new public housing will be built in two locations; although this is more complicated and expensive for the construction process, it allows that the residents of terama (the other village–the main village on the island is also called izushima) will have their own reconstructed village.

we walked around the island a little bit, on the main road that runs from one harbor to the other, along the high land area in the center of the island. before 3.11, there was an elementary school on the island, but it has been closed, and abandoned with all the items left just the way they were. the school was in the  high land areas, near where the new public housing is being built.  but the population of school-aged children had dwindled–the last year the new 1st grade class had only 1 boy, who is the grandson of a local man we wind up spending a few hours with. he is 60, and when he entered the elementary school, there were 50 kids in the 1st grade class. he gives us a tour of his garden, taking us from plant to plant, telling the story of each one, where it came from, when it blooms, its name. he has a beautiful garden, and his enjoyment of giving a guided tour of his plants was clear.  his garden is surrounding a new house that he build in the last 5-10 years, which was intended to be the home 4 generations, but he sons’ families have moved away.  before the tsunami, he ran a gas station in the harbor for boats. but the fishing activity has stopped because there are no younger people to do the work.  and families with children have moved away because there is now no school left on the island.

with the excuse of continuing the “garden tour”, we visit one neighbor’s house, who have a beautiful view of terama harbor from above. this neighbor is in his 80s, and his daughter (in her 40s) is the youngest resident on the island. her job is to bring the newspapers to island by boat. she also comes to the harbor to tie up our return ferry when it arrives later.

having coffee and tea with these residents, i was struck by the desperate  situation of this island. in the disaster area, it is not uncommon for people to say “please come and live here” to younger visitors from outside (like us). but the way that these folks from terama asked this was different–it was a more serious request, and came from a place of knowing that their village doesn’t have a future without younger residents.  islanders are hoping that the government will build a bridge to the mainland, and that this will help support the economy. (whether or not the bridge will actually be built is not certain).

i’ve spoken with many people in different disaster areas in japan and in other countries. i’ve heard a lot of terrible, traumatic, sad sad stories. from people whose lives have been destroyed, who have experienced huge loss. of course, these conversations are hard, and can be painful and sad. but they also often show the resilience of human beings, the incredible power of people to help each other, and the strength that people have to look forward.  in temporary housing, or in a landscape of destruction, people have the ability to think about the next step.  or as a researcher coming from outside, can see a future for these residents. this is not to say that the future recovery is usually or always good. is it often not good, and can cause bigger problems for residents, and this is the crux of the reason we research disasters, to try to improve things, to minimize the damage it causes for people. however, as a researcher, i can see multiple outcomes for the future, and some of these outcomes would be good for the residents.

but here, speaking with people who haven’t lost their houses or family members to the tsunami directly, there seems to be no potential for a good outcome.  they are right up against the program of the aging society of japan, one in which the young people more away and rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. of course we all know these facts and this situation. but it is different to see it directly. and it is sad, in a different way than what i am used to.

so even if the public housing that is being built on this island is the best possible (residents would probably like slightly larger houses with more space around them) but we can say they are the best public housing that could be built right now. but in this larger context of a shrinking villages, unused harbors, aging residents, it doesn’t seem like enough.

a new school year, 3 years in

i started a new job this april, at tohoku university in sendai. i am really happy about this opportunity, and excited too.

one reason i am excited about living in sendai is that it is much closer to get to many places in the disaster area (some coastal areas in sendai were also struck by the tsunami, but in most of the city there is no sign of a disaster). this week was my first trip this year, and yesterday and today i was in onagawa town and the surrounding areas.  it’s been 3 years since the tsunami.  in some ways 3 years has flashed by, and 3 years is also an eternity for people waiting for certainty, for answers, to know what is going to happen to their homes and their towns, and what are the decisions that will guide these outcomes.

3 years in, i am struck by how matter-of-fact people are about talking about death, as a women who runs a cafe in a temporary shopping arcade told us when describing her friends who just left the cafe, and how many family members they lost, and how it is nice for them to get together and chat. they are friends from when they were the same year in school, and they came out visit onagawa from sendai together. 3 years is enough time to get used to hearing and telling these stories…almost.

i am reminded of last february, when i heard the story of mr. N, in natori, who shared his experience of staying on the roof all night in the cold with flood-waters all around. mr N is a leader in his area, and in the center established to pass on the experiences, and his is also a key organizer for my friend who is doing ethnographic interviews in the areas. but they had never heard mr N’s own story. although his own family was safe, he shared the story of the local girl who was killed by the tsunami, the daughter of his childhood friend, and the experience of that family. and for him, and for us listening, the fact that 3 years had passed was irrelevant–it might as well have been 3 days, for rawness of that pain.

today, we stopped by and talked with mr T, a man who is building his own house, on his own mountainside property in ogatsu, starting by cutting down trees, one by one. at first he was working with just hand tools, although now he has the use of a small bulldozer provided by mr K’s disaster relief NGO.  i met him last year, and he has made progress on his project, and like last year, i felt that he radiates a kind of steady energy, that comes from working on his own project rather that waiting for something from the government, and also from being on this land, working with these trees, which he clearly loves doing.  in the midst of our discussion, he described a vivid picture (which is seared into his own brain) of the people who were swept away in front of his eyes. the water came, not directly up the river from the sea, but from around the other side of a hill nearby. he survived by climbing a tree, and when the water went down, on the mountainside were we were standing. he explains how far the water came up–unbelievably high, to where we are standing, probably we climbed 40-50 feet up to here. and he wants to build his house higher than that. in japan, there is the expression tendenko, which means that everyone should save themselves in a disaster, or run away on their own. from a disaster prevention point of view, this tradition was highlighted after the earthquake, as many people die when they go back or stay back to rescue or check on other people. from a disaster education point of view, the important thing is to have plan and rely in the fact that wherever your loved ones are (at school, work, home, etc.) they we also evacuate, so no one will waste time going to check on each other. this can be an important factor to save lives, but tendenko can be interpreted differently (and is impossible to translate) as an every-man-for-himself attitude. I heard a speaker at TEDxTohoku in 2011 explain this really well: that whereas the press focused on the tendenko concept, in reality, people naturally help each other, children held hands and ran away together. mr T also mentions tendenko as he is discribing the pain of not being able to help the people he saw, and says that tendenko is not naturally our human response.

mr T is consciously staying busy, looking forward, aware of how having this project, building a house with his own hands is a good thing. he tells us about how volunteers who have helped him, young and old, have enjoyed it and gotten some positive inspiration. mr T is probably in his late 60s, and says other retirees have said they feel motivated by what he is doing.

7 years since katrina, hurricane isaac

seven years ago, i had just come back to seattle after a summer studio in taiwan, with a stop in japan. since i had been traveling, i hadn’t seen any news during the lead up to katrina, and when i saw it on t.v. for the first time, new orleans was already underwater. if was my first night back in seattle, and my friends and i were eating fish and chips and drinking beer at the ‘local,’ the bar near my house, and it was on the t.v. how new orleans was like a bowl under sea level filling up with water. my friends were repeating the news stories about people shooting at helicopters. so it had already entered the stage when the news coverage was spreading some questionable things, but it was also the moment where it seemed like the t.v. reporters, when faced with the truth of a government who had failed it’s people, were ready to tell this truth, or coudn’t help it. i still feel this was a big media moment, looking back. the reporters were people, and as people, were outraged.

in the weeks that followed, i wondered what i could do as an architecture student, how to volunteer, if i could be helpful or useful, and how? i dd volunteer, and that feeling of wondering how to be helpful never really went away.

last year after 3.11, watching the tsunami and devastation on television for several days straight was a somewhat similar feeling. in some ways it was harder to know what to do, and in others it was very very clear. in the last 7 years i have gotten much deeper into the world of disasters, and that feeling of wanting to contribute something is still there, and while it probably is what keeps me going, it’s not always clear, or straightforward, or easy.

i watched isaac approaching new orleans and the mississippi gulf coast, from afar, online, in a completely different timezone, on the other side of the world *googling new results, checking twitter, refreshing, repeat.* it’s completely unsatisfactory, in terms of information. it’s great that there are no deaths so far (except for 1 guy who feel out of a tree) and i hope it stays that way. and it’s great that the new levee system in new orleans held, and that the president is a better man than the one 7 years ago, and has already declared a state of emergency that will allow federal funds to be used in Louisiana and Mississippi. and that the overal official system seems to be about a million times more on the ball.

but for the folks whose houses went underwater, in plaquemines parish, especially, it doesn’t matter, they still lost everything. and knowing what i do now, all i want is to go volunteer in in the gulf coast. and i can’t. even though i will be there to do a survey next month.

unfortunately, japan is a very disaster-prone country. and after the big hanshin-awaji earthquake in kobe in 95, there have been several earthquakes even before 3.11 last year. and in japan there are some “professional volunteers,” people have been working in disaster response after kobe, and then after subsequent disasters. they know they stuff, they know what to do, how to provide for emotional as well as physical needs of disaster victims. and last year, after 3.11, when they heard about about earthquake and tsunami, they headed off to the diaster area before there was really any information available. i think now i understand their feeling more. because somehow (and i am the opposite of a patriotic person) seeing a disaster happen in my own country, in an area that already suffered so much, taps into something different emotionally.

i want to go there so badly, but i can’t. and no matter how many times i rationalize it, or someone else rationizes it for me, sometimes being a researcher/academic does not feel like enough.

but i can recommend a few places, if you want to donate. and i can tell you, that donating money intelligently (to grassroots folks, not to the red cross!) is often better and more effective than spending time and energy to go volunteer in person.

the st. bernard project has been repairing houses for folks who need it for the last 7 years, and they are still going strong: for donations!

all hands also got their start responding to katrina in biloxi, and there are already planning their isaac response, here:

if you know of good info or resources, let me know and i would be more than happy to share them.

ishinomaki and onagawa, june 9

we went to see the situation on onagawa, which is on the northeastern side of the ojika penninsula. onagawa was hit hard, by very tell tsunami waves. even the hospital which was up high on a hill had some water.

several large buildings, 3 or 4 story structures of reinforced concrete, had been tipped over and were laying on their sides. it’s a new kind of unnatural, even after seeing so many cars and boats in places they don’t belong, on roofs and inside buildings, and seeing so many buildings which all their ‘flesh’ ripped away, leaving only the structural steel frame, seeing these buildings that had been tipped over on their side was a weird feeling. you can see the steel reinforcement on the underside of the building, and how it was easily snapped off.

while into onagawa, we randomly ran into F Sensei, another expert disaster researcher—the Japanese disaster world is small indeed. he was there for the reconstruction planning meeting that was happening the next day, and after finishing up the interview/documentation he was doing, very kindly showed us around.
one think that shocked me in onagawa was some public housing buildings, multi-story 5 floors, several miles away from the sea. they were near a small river that fed into the ocean, a winding waterway that barely looked like a river at all. it bent around some hills, and the area didn’t really feel close to the ocean. but. when the tsunami hit, it barreled up this river, impossibly curving, to reach this area far from the sea, with enough power to blast through these apartments as high as the 4th floor. there were 3 buildings lined up in an a row. and the water shot through all 3 of them. it would be unbelievable, except I saw it. conventional wisdom in Japanese disaster prevention is that 3 story reinforced concrete buildings are safe in tsunami. this time they weren’t, and many buildings that were expected to protect the community in disaster (schools, hospitals, other designated evacuation places) proved to not be safe after all.

later we stopped by the park and school up on the hill, which is now being used as a shelter. in the stands by the track, volunteers have been cleaning photographs found in the debris, which hopefully will returned to people who know the people in the pictures. there was also a group of professional locksmiths breaking safes. it’s difficult to reunite this property with it’s rightful owner. a lot of people in Japan keep large amounts of cash in their houses, and a huge amount of this cash was lost in the tsunami.

this large park was one proposed site for new housing construction. while it has the advantage of available land, it would be a big loss for the community as a recreational asset.

we saw some temporary housing that had just recently been constructed. it was actually an example of very pleasant housing, not quite a 1 room efficiency, but well made and very livable (as in, I personally thought, this would be a nice place to live, for me). each unit was meant for a family of 4, and for larger families, it was arranged so that they would have 2 adjacent units. they were accessible as well. in addition, nice new appliances (fridge, washing machine, rice cooker, big tv) were provided, each with a red cross sticker–so it was nice to see some evidence of red cross money being used!

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kobe network

because of my research about disaster recovery, i am very fortunate to already know some of the people who were really involved with recovery after the kobe earthquake. there’s one small group who are made up of professors/community organizers/non-profits (some people wearing all of these hats!), who are involved in a number of different projects that i’ve joined in (the disaster recovery community starts to feel like everyone is connected!).

yesterday, they were having a meeting to discuss how to support tohoku. since i’m in hawaii, i wasn’t there of course, but they called me via skype. at that time, i was at my brother’s friends’ house, and my phone wasn’t working, so i sat in the office of their house, using their computer, which didn’t have a camera, and i didn’t know a way to hook up a mike, and i couldn’t type in japanese! so it was a funny skype ‘conversation’; i could hear everything that they were saying, but they couldn’t hear me. and neither could see each other. and since there was no japanese language, i had to type in romanji (which is strange for japanese people to read). but i could hear them talking, and each of their voices, and the distinctive laughs–especially of one of the professors, who has a very jolly high-pitched belly-laugh.

these are a handful of people who worked together after the kobe earthquake 16 years ago, who are close friends, who are experts and comrades in disaster recovery. they were discussing the details of the situation (they had already discussed forming a network to support tohoku), and logistics for supplies, and a reconnaissance visit.

hearing their disembodied voices, for the first time after the earthquake and tsunami, i felt comforted. as adults, we can never have that feeling of safety that only a child can feel. and after any natural disaster, there is nothing that can take it back, or change the fact that it happened. but when i listened to my japanese friends, disaster recovery experts who are ready to start doing what needs to be done for the victims of the tsunami, i feel encouraged. i really trust their actions, their instincts, their knowledge and ability. and i feel so honored and fortunate to be considered in some small way a part of their group.

i feel ready too. ready to do whatever i can. ready to be back in japan, already, even if my mom is scared for me. the work that comes next is the reason for everything i have studied until now. i can’t wait to start.


on twitter

  • RT @JapanIntercult: I'm looking to talk to non-Japanese students of Japanese universities who are stuck out of Japan or have not been able… 1 day ago