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Rebuilding Japan: Aid worker diary

May 5, 2011

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The devastation in Ofunato.


Heron Holloway, 28, is a Habitat for Humanity International’s Asia-Pacific disaster communications manager. She is in Ofunato city, northern Iwate Prefecture, Japan, as part of the first team engaged with housing repair and clean-up activity. This is her account.

Day Five

Today is my last day in Ofunato. On the plane to Japan I was reading a guidebook that included a box on earthquake safety procedure, and had the following sentence: “everyone’s been talking about the next ‘Big One’ for nearly a decade”. This guidebook was obviously written before the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, but it was an eerie read knowing the ‘Big One’ had just happened and I was heading to one of the areas most affected.

Travelling through the Japanese countryside, you see water everywhere – in picturesque babbling brooks, smart rice fields, clean rivers – and it looks always neat, managed and totally in harmony with its surroundings. The recent tsunami was none of those things: it was ugly, destructive and could not be checked.

Driving along the coastline, going north out of Ofunato, we weave in and out of bays and headland. Every time we come around a bend, another scene of devastation is unveiled and I know that pattern continues all the way along Japan’s east coast. Kentaro, head of Habitat for Humanity Japan, describes the coastline as like ‘shark’s teeth’ and that is exactly what it looks like. The tsunami waves sliced either side and rushed in to beaches, ports, harbours, homes, schools, hotels, offices, wiping everything away.

I experienced my very first earthquake while here, an aftershock – there has been at least one every day since 11 March. I was frightened, and so can’t begin to imagine how each aftershock must just act as yet another reminder of that awful day in Ofunato.

Day Four

I’ve just finished a really tough interview. I am at Fukushino Sato, a centre for physically challenged people, which now houses 70 tsunami evacuees and was speaking to Mr. Hosoya (he says he’d prefer not to give his first name, or be photographed) and his son, Yumeto Hosoya, on the thin mattresses that now represent their home.

When the earthquake struck, Mr. Hosoya was in his barber’s shop, cutting hair. He heard the tsunami warnings, and ran next door. His neighbour, a fisherman, told him to get on his boat and that they’d sail out to sea. Not thinking about whether this was a good idea or not, Mr. Hosoya did as he was told and they headed off.

Mr. Hosoya tells me that timing was the only reason the two of them are alive. He describes that there were two big waves – the first was smaller, and boats flipped over and snapped in half. Then the second, bigger wave came, and not many boats survived. He said that they had managed to get just that bit further out to sea. Then the waves started returning to the sea, creating a whirlpool. Mr. Hosoya said that he saw and heard someone crying for help, but didn’t go to assist as he knew that if he did, he would die. Mr. Hosoya describes how guilty he feels and that many boats and people were crushed in that whirlpool.

Mr. Hosoya and his neighbour stayed out at sea on the boat overnight, and returned to Ofunato the next day. They were unable to return to where the boat has previously been stationed, but eventually found somewhere to land.

Mr. Hosoya wants me to pass on a message on his behalf: “Natural disasters happen and we cannot change that. After the tsunami I had no money, house, or anything to eat. But people unknown to me sent food and clothes. They wanted to help us. Do not forget that you are living in a world with others that care and wanted to support you.”

“I never imagined that I would smile again, or feel love again. Knowing that other people wanted to support us though, I felt a human connection. Feeling that human connection, I can stand up and smile again.”

Day Three

Standing on the roof of a three storey building in Ofunato district, one of the few still standing after the tsunami, I get a 360 view. It is really hard to put in to words the scene around me: things that defy common-sense – a car on top of a cinema, a huge tree trunk stuck sideways through a house, and rubble as high as most buildings. What strikes me more than anything is the obvious division that runs around the base of the city – a line that clearly divides those whose lives changed on 11 March 2011, and those who were saved that fate by mere meters.

I am standing on the roof of Tatsuo Urashima’s house. He lived with his family in the top two floors, and ran a sushi restaurant next door. He shows me the height of the tsunami wave – above chest height on the 3rd floor. His house is miraculously still standing, although ruined, but his restaurant was completely wiped away.

I also meet a thirteen-year-old boy, the youngest person I have spoken to about the tsunami so far. He was at school when the tsunami struck – thankfully Ofunato Junior High School is on a hill. In emergencies, it is a school rule that students are not allowed to go home until they are collected by their parents – that night Ruki was still at school at 1am, not knowing what had happened to his family, until his mother and grandmother finally came to pick him up. Riku wants to travel and explore all of Japan by train, but he is not sure how he will be able to do this as Ofunato’s train line and station were destroyed and he is not sure how long it will be before they are fixed.

Day Two

Media reports claim that Rizunataata, Ofunato’s neighbouring city, was ‘wiped off the map’ by the tsunami. Over 1,300 people died here and 800 are still missing. We see government officials in blue suits sifting through the mangled mess of broken houses searching for bodies. At a large evacuation centre, set up in a school, I meet Kazue Mutakami, a 52-year-old lady who now just has a 2m x 3m space of a gymnasium to call her home. Her house was washed away. The only reason she survived is because she was in hospital at the time. Her elderly mother and cat were at home and she hasn’t seen them since then. Eighteen days after the disaster, her mother’s body was found.

Every person in the evacuation centre of 600 people has a story like Kazue’s. A few lucky families – and it is pure luck, as names are picked at random – have been moved into the first temporary shelters built in the school grounds.

Hiroyuki Takahashi, 48, is one of the lucky ones, and shows me around his new house. He has just moved in with his son and mother, the only members of his immediate family still alive, as he lost both his father and wife to the tsunami. He quickly brings out a photo of his wife to show me, and when I ask to take a picture of his family, his son holds it up. I ask Hiroyuki how long he will stay in the temporary shelter, and he replies: “My mother is very old. I don’t want her to die here, so I want to move out as soon as possible. I am not sure how I will do this though as I now have no job.”

Day One

Fuminaro Honma’s eyes start to fill with tears. My translator, Shuko, also wells up. I too am crying. Standing in what looks like the biggest garbage site I have ever seen, with the air smelling of seaweed, Fuminaro is telling me about the moment that he made his first phonecall after the tsunami struck, to his brother, and they were so affected to find out that each other was alive that they spent ten minutes on the phone in silence.

Fuminaro lost his home and his soba noodle restaurant in the tsunami. He shows me the foundations, describing each of the rooms and shows me where he was standing when the earthquake struck. He finds two of his bamboo soba noodle sieves amongst the rubble. This is the first of his processions that he has found since he returned; everything else he owns has gone, including his two pet cats.

Despite all this Fuminaro is happy, he feels so lucky to have survived with his family. He tells me that the sakura, or cherry blossom trees, bloomed again after the tsunami and that this is like the Japanese people – they are tough and will recover to bloom again.