Today is the three year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku – the northern area of Japan.
Outside of Japan, the disaster is fairly well forgotten, except for the periodic report on the nuclear power plants. Today’s update: they’re still down and nobody knows if they are safe or will be operational.
I wasn’t in Japan during the earthquake. Lisa was here on spring break leading a tour group of about 150 university students. I didn’t know about the earthquake until I woke up and saw that I had received an e-mail from Lisa. All it said was “I am okay.”
We were out of telephone contact for the rest of the day but at least I was rest assured she was safe.
Three years later Japan still remembers the tragedy. Today at work we had a moment of silence. Trains shut down momentarily in remembrance. Black flags are hanging alongside national flags.
To provide some background, the earthquake measured at 9.0 on the Richter Scale and struck 43 miles off the coast of Tohoku. The ensuing tsunami was 133 feet high – about as tall as Hotel Vetro in Iowa City. Almost 16,000 people died as a result. That’s more than the population of Indianola, Iowa. An entire city wiped out in one fell swoop.
Last month I had a chance to visit Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture on a magazine assignment. I tagged along with the charity group Photohoku.
This group of volunteer photographers and like-minded individuals works to replace photo albums. The survivors in the area lost all of their worldly possessions and are in the process of putting their lives back together. Photohoku helps them by building new, happy memories.
Yuko, the founder of Photohoku told me about an elderly woman she met. When she handed her the new photo album, the lady said “she felt like she found her smile again.”
When I arrived in Iwaki there was still evidence of the tsunami. The coastline was devoid of buildings. Vacant excavators stood like sentries on the barren, tan, compact dirt. Workers were in the process of removing the foundations of the demolished buildings.
Further off the coast shiny new homes had been built and there were some signs of rejuvenation.
However, when we arrived at the community center where the photo session was being held, there was evidence that there were people no closer to repairing their lives than they were three years ago. I wasn’t much help on the photo side of things, but I was able to collect stories.
According to Photohoku co-founder Brian, the government had put the survivors into temporary housing that was supposed to last for three years. Three years is up and these people are still living in temporary housing.
I met a lady by the name of Kaori who was getting photos of her 1-year-old son for the first time.
Kaori swiped through the photos on her cell phone until she found a picture of her former house reduced to a pile of kindling. She told me that she can’t afford to build a new home and she has lived in temporary housing ever since the tsunami.
“I can’t even think about the future,” she said.
There were other stories.
Brian told me about the first time Photohoku came to Fukushima. It was three months after the tsunami and they were wandering around looking for people to build photo albums for. They found a couple of guys cleaning up a house. These guys weren’t refugees, but were in fact other volunteers.
They invited Brian and the rest of the Photohoku crew to help clean up the house. “I didn’t really want to,” Brian says, laughing. “I wanted to do what I came up here to do, which was take photos. But we were here to help any way we could.”
They were given a rag and a bucket of water and Brian got down to scrubbing a filthy wall. After 30 minutes the rag was in tatters and the water was mud black.
The volunteers informed Brian that that was the only rag and the only bucket of water he had to use. There wasn’t enough supplies or running water to waste. They showed Brian how he was supposed to fold the rag into a tiny square and use a clean edge. When a surface was dirty, he kept refolding until finally he had used every square inch of the rag. Only then was he to rinse it out the water.
Another Photohoku volunteer Ken told me how he came up with another volunteer group shortly after the tsunami. The Iwaki fish factory had been completely ravaged by the tsunami and thousands of fish had been swept into the rain gutters. The sewers of the city were engulfed with dead, rotting fish.
Someone had to clean out the fish. That someone was Ken. For three days he donned a rubber suit, boots, gloves and mask and mucked up buckets and buckets of dead, bloated fish.
“The smell was unbearable,” said Ken, a rather understated fellow.
These are just snippets of the entire panorama. I was only in Iwaki for three hours. There are thousands upon thousands of stories and thousands upon thousands of people who still need help.
There are organizations working hard to lend a hand. I read an article where a philanthropic expert said if there is one good thing that arose from the tsunami, is that it awakened the Japanese community’s desire to volunteer.
It is difficult to measure the impact. It was devastating. Heart-wrenching. Throw in a few other adjectives if you so wish.
I will leave you with one more story. Toward the end of our volunteering session with Photohoku, I was getting dead tired (even though I hadn’t done jack). There was about a half hour to go, and I was ready to head home. I had just finished packing away their 3D equipment, and one of the residents asked if they could get a 3D picture.
In my mind, I was thinking, “No. It’s put away. You’re too late.”
Instead, one of the nearby Photohoku volunteers jumped right up and said, “Of course. We can do that for you.”
I felt sheepish. Of course we could help. That was what we were there to do. There was a four hour ride home (thank you RJ for driving), but at least at the end of that ride I had a home to go to.