Volunteering in Tohoku During the Disaster

ByRay Proper
Apr 01, 2011

Volunteering in Tohoku During the Disaster

This article was written only a brief period of time after the Great Tohoku, Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, 11 March 2011.  As of this writing, December of 2017, the earthquake’s toll stands at: 15,894 deaths, 6,156 injured, and 2,546 people missing across twenty prefectures.  I never expected to be in that disaster area, but it was an incredible experience.


This week  I was a  volunteer supporting the disaster area of Japan. I was nervous about being based so close to the haywire reactor, but after arriving I found life was going on just as it generally does, and I felt a lot better. I was actually a bit far from the tsunami area, as I was based in a logistics warehouse further inland. From there, we supported helicopter supply runs by Japan Mercy Flights, and truck supply runs into the areas in need.

My first day began at 630 in the run down little bed and breakfast that has been rented out for the volunteers and staff of Hope Japan, as well as the helicopter pilots operating out of Sports Land Sugo, where they race cars in better times. After a slow start waiting for permits for one of the trucks, we made it out to the helipad (usually the pit stop area) and loaded up two choppers flying out first to Toryo Junior High School in Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, then Osu Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Those locations are very isolated and access by truck is difficult at best, impossible at worst, and so the helicopters are used to fill the void. Trucks are preferred, as they can haul more supplies, but in a pinch you have to find out what they absolutely need the most, and try to fit as much as you can into the birds.

After that, Kazu, a much more experienced volunteer, and I loaded up the only other vehicle available at the time, a van belonging to a rather talented Nagoya musician named John, with as much food, water, and medicine as we could get in and headed out to deliver them. We stopped at a convenience store to buy something to take with us for lunch, and for the first time I saw an essentially empty convenience store in Japan. I bought two fish sausages, and a sports drink. Unless you wanted booze, that was pretty much it. There were not even cigarettes left. I can only imagine that there are a lot of edgy people around there!

From the conbini, it was still a couple of hours to the area, and the first damage I saw was easy to miss. It was just mud. Then I started seeing mud everywhere, and realized that none of the businesses were open. I wondered what all the people who worked in those restaurants, shops, and businesses were going to do about rent that month. Soon, I started seeing broken windows, and furnishings piled up as rubbish. I saw many people with shovels, slowly digging their lives out of the muck. It was not long before I saw my first tossed car. It had been tossed into a pond. Then I saw a taxi stand where every taxi had been slammed into every other like some crazed toddler had been slamming his hot wheels together. I saw boats on the road. I saw houses listing. I saw boats on top of cars.

It was crazy, but it was nothing compared to what lay ahead. As we started down the hill to our first stop, an elementary school in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, we stopped on the side of the road to look at what had once been a neighborhood. It was gone; only wreckage and splinters remained. The only thing that distinguished the area from a garbage dump was the relatively neat main road that had been cleared by someone with either a bulldozer or a tank. I saw what looked like it might have been a house with a car in it, some scattered furniture, a roof, a few foundations, some destroyed cars, and a sign that said “Don’t let your dog poop here” overlooking it all.

The total destruction of that little community gave way to skeletal remnants downtown. Most things concrete “survived,” while most everything else was ripped from its foundations. What looked like a vertical metal apartment building was toppled and dragged across the street; its steel beams bent to hell. I say apartment, but as you can see from the picture, it is almost impossible to say what it actually was. There was a giant industrial holding tank of some sort that had been tossed, and now lay crushed like a tin can next to the road- I could not figure out where it came from. It might have been quite far, as I saw no industrial sites nearby. Our car navigation told us to go straight, past the crushed can, but when we tried we were blocked by the water. At first, I thought the car navi was buggy, but I quickly realized that the road no longer existed; no sign of it remained after the break; just the water. We tried to turn, but found our way totally blocked by an overturned truck, and a couple of downed cement power poles.

We were forced to back out, and ask directions to Onagawa Dai Ni Elementary School from the security guarding a blocked entrance to a road. They were hired from outside the area so they did not know where the school was, but we got a great view of the giant building that had been torn up from its foundation and moved right in the middle of the road. The guards were there to prevent anyone from approaching it. The gentleman in the picture is Kazu, coming back from that conversation with them. I could not help but think of that unlucky witch in the Wizard of Oz that was crushed by a flying house, but this was no house, it was an apartment building. It looked to be ripped at least 100 feet away from its foundation, and it was listing to the side about 20 degrees.

On our way to the school, we passed the other side of that road, and you could see the bottom from the building from that angle. It was tilting that severely. Past that, high up on a cemented embankment along the road to the school, there was a car; precariously perched about 3 stories off the ground; exactly where the water had left it. Also where the water had left it, I saw a train on its side. I could not see any tracks, so I am not sure how far it had travelled until it came to rest there. For some reason, the train freaked me out a bit, and when I saw the second rail car, tossed on top of a hill behind the first, lying in a graveyard, I was speechless. I cannot say why seeing a train on top of a hill would freak me out more than a mobile apartment building, but for me, that was the oddest, most disturbing thing I saw that day.

The distance was short, but steep, and that made all the difference. Maybe 300 feet from the train, we found Onagawa Dai Ni Elemetary School in perfect condition. It had an Army encampment in the lower parking lot, and military choppers were landing on the athletic field, but besides that school could have been in session. Behind the school at the supply point, we found Japanese Soldiers and volunteers taking donations; “everything but water,” he said, “we have enough of that.” They helped us unload, and Kazu pumped anyone who would talk to him for information about what was going on in that city. How many people? What do you need? Has there been any sickness yet? Kazu’s main job is intelligence gathering. Any idiot can drop off supplies, but a good aid worker can tailor future shipments so that no item is wasted by listening to the people on the ground.

Gathering intelligence took longer than unloading did; a lot longer. Granted, with 15 Soldiers to help, unloading a van does not take long. I saw the big board, where they were keeping track of the people that were accounted for. 3,456 people were completely homeless, living in the shelter. 2,913 were still able to live in their homes, but were likely without running water and power; they were only “affected” by the tsunami. On March 15, this little village was profiled in The Washington Post; they reported that half the population was missing at that time. As of the day this was written 295 people were killed, 895 are missing and presumed washed out to sea in the village of Onagawa. If the ratios of the dead and missing hold true here in the same way they do in the other 17 prefectures, 1200 people or more will have died, and of those 800 or so will be elderly residents. They were either too proud and stubborn to leave, or too slow to get out of the way. As I ate my dinner tonight they mentioned the village in the weather report; as if it still existed.

We left Onagawa the way we came, back through the twisted bars and splintered wood that comprise this shattered community[, its residents now temporarily housed in shelters]. We made our way to Miyatojima, also in Miyagi Prefecture. Hope has singled this community out for “phase 3 assistance,”or reconstruction. A small organization cannot help a lot of people, but by limiting your scope and helping a few people you can make a big difference. We were tasked with stopping by and saying hello at the elementary school, where the town has taken shelter; seeing if anybody needed anything.

45 minutes later, we were creeping up one of the worst roads I have ever seen. The sea had passed right over this, the only road into town, and it, as well as any homes unlucky enough to be in the way and the only bridge connecting the island to the mainland, had been swept clean. It was a terrible road, but it was an improvement. For nearly a week, this island was reachable only by boat or helicopter. If you were on the island during the earthquake, you remained there for five days, until temporary bridges, and gravel piles topped with plywood finally welcomed the island back to the world. Only helicopters, like the ones we were loading on the racetrack, had sustained that community during its isolation.

The road was bad, and seemed to go nowhere. After ten minutes, we flagged down an elderly couple in a truck to make sure we were not driving off into the void, and they told us that Miyatojima Elementary School was just up the road, but they also let us know that if we were not off the island in 45 minutes the military would lock us in until morning. It seems they wanted to ensure no one tried to drive that road at night. Although un-enthralled at the thought of spending the night in a shelter, we carried on, determined to turn back after 20 minutes regardless of whether we had accomplished our mission or not. Luckily, the school was less than 3 minutes down the road. There were dozens of cars parked along the road near the school; like resident’s cars parked in front of the building, which is exactly what they were. As we pulled in I could see kids playing baseball, and adults wandering around talking. Miyatojima is a small place, and most of the town was sheltering in the school. At one point, nearly 900 people shared the space, though it was not a large school.

Miyatojima is the kind of place where a foreigner will get a second look on a good day, and I was definitely a sore thumb that day. The firemen chatting near their truck in the parking lot suddenly started talking about English, and then about Japanese. There was a large group of older men sitting around a large bonfire, and near them another fire was being used to cook in a giant pot. It actually smelled wonderful, and I could see the women passing out bags of dinner to the community. Kazu ran inside to find the man he was looking for; I waited outside to speed things up. I was really hoping I would not have to sleep there that night.

I started noticing I was getting odd looks from the campfire group, so I gave them a little bow and a wave. They returned both, but I could tell they were still talking about me. I just kept trying to look friendly and stay out of everyone’s way. Finally, an old man got up and walked directly to me. He was wearing a brown hat, gray jacket, and khaki pants. He was a bit nervous, and in broken English he started trying to explain to me that I needed to leave before the gate closed unless I was going to stay. “Gate. Close. You stay? You go? Gate close. You stay! 6! 6!” He said. I realized pretty quickly that they had been working that message out together while I was standing there. I could see he was worried, so I quickly explained to him I that I knew, and was hoping to leave shortly. He was instantly relieved that I understood him, and seemed pleased. As he walked off I felt really touched that these people who were going to sleep in a shelter again that night were so concerned that I would not get off the island and back to the world safely that they had brainstormed English and sent a representative to warn me. I suppose they knew why I was there, and it made me feel like I was not doing enough to help them. We got off the island, but it was a wild ride. We almost dropped into the sea at one point, and I could see why they were concerned about people driving it at night.

The next morning, Kazu met a truck from Nagoya, and unloaded their supplies. From there, the day went badly for me. We planned to drive supplies out to Ishinomaki, and then scout out the Ojiki Peninsula, but we were down to a quarter of a tank, so we went to find more gas. We spent 2 hours looking, but every station we checked was sold out, and the one that had gas had a line about 70 cars long waiting, even and they had not started giving anyone gas yet for the day. We realized we were not going to make it to Ishinomaki that day, and returned to the warehouse at about noon to find something else to do. I was disappointed.

On the plus side, the helicopters at our site were far from idle. The birds supplied an evacuation center at Toryo Junior High School in Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture again, this time with underwear, lights, food, and water. They also ran a mission to the village of Kyubunhama in Miyagi prefecture. Kyubunhama Village is right on the coast of the Ojika Peninsula and was hit very hard. Kyubunhana got two helicopters delivering water, rice and other foods, and personal hygiene items from our warehouse. The helicopters were covered by a news crew, who stayed all day and filmed many aspects of operations, including me smoking my pipe, which they seemed to think was very interesting.

On my final day, we received a big semi-truck filled with supplies for the warehouse. We unloaded that, again on camera. This time, there were two television crews there, again focusing on the helicopters. After unloading, we started loading the birds for their first flights of the day. As transportation had not improved at the locations they had supported the day before, the helicopters were again dispatched to evacuation centers at Toryo Junior High School in Kitakami, Iwate, and the village of Kyubunhama in Miyagi prefecture. I remember thinking how cool it would have been to load one of those helicopters up with a ton of take-out pizza or something, and give the people there a great meal to lighten the mood for a bit. A nice idea, but I suppose it is probably better that we sent only basic supplies again. As of 3/31, I have been told these locations are still largely isolated, and are still being supplied via helicopter.

That first day was a lot of waiting, a lot of driving, and a lot of horrifying sights. I constantly felt pressure to get one more box in, to drive a little faster. I wanted to help people, and I felt like I should be doing more; more than I could. The second was all waiting, and frustration that I could not be out in the middle of it all. The third day ended early for me, as I had to catch my ride home, but we got the warehouse resupplied, and the birds in the air quickly, and it was time well spent. I wish I could still be there helping now, but I have a job and responsibilities here, and I was lucky that H&R was generous enough to let me go at all. I hope I will have another chance to go there; maybe drive a truck up and back. I still want to do more.

You would think that a modern country like Japan would have their people out and comfortable in 24 hours, but here we were more than two weeks into the drama, and just beginning to make a dent in the chaos. When things break down on this scale, they do not get fixed quickly no matter how badly we want them to. I am grateful for the time I spent seeing the Japanese people’s plight, and the structures put in place to aid them first-hand. I am home now, I don’t get to do it again tomorrow, but I hope that I can do more anyway. So many depend on it, and they are suffering even now as I write these final lines in a coffee shop near Sakae, far from the haywire reactor, the shattered village, and an elementary school with an old man in a brown hat.

As of today, The National Police Agency has confirmed 11,532 deaths, 2,873 injured, and 16,441 people missing. These numbers will increase, with casualties estimated to reach the tens of thousands. Japanese Government estimates of the cost of earthquake and tsunami will exceed $309 billion.

Onagawa Town Website

Map of the Destruction from the New York Times

About the author

Ray Proper editor