Thank you Iwanuma

After the opportunity to sample Sendai’s most popular dish (cow tongue) the night before, we returned to Iwanuma Monday morning for our last day of work. The volunteer centre was noticeably less busy as it was the end of the golden week holiday, and so there was plenty of work for us to do.

Debris littering a rice field beside one of the homes we worked at

Our morning assignment saw us working in the relief supply warehouse getting things ready for people still living in the shelter. All of the supplies were being kept in a huge gym, as they were unable to use this same space as a shelter since it had been damaged by the earthquake. The pieces of still hanging roof tiles and a large chunk of air duct lying in the middle of the gym served as reminders of the awesome force felt here. We spent the morning shifting boxes and containers full of essential supplies of food, water, blankets, and even toilet paper, most of which were donated by various organizations and countries (thanks for the cookies Malaysia!).

Debris and a destroyed car in a field beside one of the homes we worked at

After finishing up in the gym, we headed back to the volunteer centre to receive our final assignment – another trip out to the mud for more shoveling. Arriving at a large house beside what were once rice fields, we split into two groups and did our best to help the homeowners shovel out. My team spent most of our time scraping out a layer of mud from underneath the floorboards inside the house, most of the flooring having already been ripped up and thrown away. The army has already been in the area clearing out the bigger debris with their heavy equipment, but the thin layer of mud that remains everywhere is something that has to be tackled by hand, and its creep into areas like these under the floors reminded me of just how all-consuming the tsunami was.

We returned to the volunteer centre at the end of the day and said our good byes to the lovely staff working there. I wasn’t able to really talk with them, but there weren’t many foreigners volunteering there (I saw three others in the three days), and so they had begun to recognize me when we returned each morning.

These people, like many others we met volunteering were truly inspiring. We spent several days working with a man who had been evacuated from his home in a town near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. He was obviously out of work and had to leave most of his things behind in his haste to get out of the area. But rather than search out a new job and attempt to restart his own life, he had been spending several weeks volunteering in Iwanuma, sleeping in his car each night to save money.

It’s very hard to express how I feel after having come back from these experiences. I certainly find it difficult to focus on answering emails, filing in paperwork, and sitting in on meetings knowing what’s happening just a few hundred kilometers from here. But I do feel lucky to have had the opportunity to do something like this, and particularly being able to work alongside Nana while doing so. More than anything else, I’m left feeling inspired by the courage and selflessness of both those who were volunteering and those who were impacted directly by the tsunami (many of whom are one and the same). Thank you for reminding me that what is often most important in life is life itself.

Into the mud

Day two in Iwanuma meant our first journey into the now mud-coated area directly hit by the March 11 tsunami. Upon arrival at the volunteer centre, we were assigned a team and our task for the morning – shoveling mud around a house close to the Sendai airport.

I had watched live online as a wall of water flooded in around the airport on the day of the earthquake, and so it was obvious that the area that we’d be going to was one that was hard hit. We gathered our tools, donned our protective gear of masks, goggles, gloves, and long sleeves, and boarded a mini bus with our team to travel to our work site.

My fiancée Nana and I at the volunteer centre after a morning of work in the mud. We look deceptively clean, but this is after getting caught in the rain and then being hosed off upon our return to the centre.

The area around Iwanuma is home to a great deal of farmland, and these fields have been left relatively untouched as the priority for recovery efforts have focused first on the buildings that are still intact. So as we drove to the house where we’d be working, we passed by all sorts of debris littered across the landscape; cars with shattered windows and mud-caked intakes, pieces of roof, and sadly more personal objects like shoes, toys, and a teddy bear. The once fertile rice fields are now coated in a thick layer of mud laden with salt water from the sea, and so it’s unclear when the area farmers will be able to again tend to their land.

Our van dropped us at the house where we’d be spending the morning. While the woman who lived there had already been working hard to clean out the house itself, having removed bag upon bag of garbage and all of the tatami mat flooring, she needed our help to dig out all of the mud on the surrounding property. We sweated through our masks and got down to work shoveling mud from every nook around the house. Most trips with the wheelbarrow revealed new finds in the mud – more shoes, CDs, even membership cards that were still intact. Despite having lost nearly everything, this homeowner and all of the others that we would work with over the next few days insisted on offering us drinks and snacks when we stopped to take a short break. We were guests in their homes, even if those homes were now only shells of their former selves, and so we guiltily obliged.

After a quick lunch back at the volunteer centre, we moved to our next worksite for the afternoon. We were brought to another house and got to work trying to remove mud from a garden area. This family, like many in the area, was very tied to the land, and so they try to grow the majority if not all of their vegetables themselves. A garden may seem like a luxury for many, but for this family it meant being able to support themselves and stand on their own feet. During our coffee break the homeowner told us of how the main centre of Iwanuma used to be much closer to the sea, but was moved inland after being destroyed by a tsunami hundreds of years ago. Over the decades the town has gradually stretched closer to the shore, having forgotten the lessons of history. Still, standing in the garden far from the sight of the sea, it was hard to fully understand the waterline that we could see still visible on the fences and walls around the house – it reached up past my elbow, and we were over 2km inland from the shore.

To be continued…

Tsunami Relief in Iwanuma

The March 11 earthquake impacted all of us in Japan to some degree, but thankfully its effects were relatively minor in my city of Yokohama. We had a few weeks of shortages, some rolling blackouts, a sporadic train schedule. What we had the most of though was a feeling of horror and helplessness for those unlucky enough to be a few hundred kilometers north of us.

Almost immediately after the earthquake, and like many people here, I was struck by the resolve and determination of the Japanese people, and had a desire to try to personally help in some way. I donated money and helped with some fundraising at my school, but this felt like an easy way out. What I really wanted was to go to Tohoku in person and help however I could with the monumental cleanup effort that is now taking place.

My fiancée and I were able to find a volunteer centre a few kilometers south of Sendai in the town of Iwanuma that was looking for help. Sendai is surreally normal today, and the train line from there to Iwanuma is operating normally, so we were able to book a hotel room in Sendai for our stay. While we were able to help directly in the economic recovery by spending our money in Sendai, we realize just how lucky we were to have a hot shower and a comfortable bed each night – many other volunteers, including some of those that we worked with in Iwanuma are camping or sleeping in their cars each night.

Arriving in Sendai felt much the same as anywhere else in Japan at the moment. Aside from the signs and posters of encouragement, there’s little evidence that anything has happened. While the lingering nuclear situation means that things are far from certain, there’s a strong desire to try to return to normal and get on with life.

We arrived our first day in Iwanuma not really knowing what we’d be facing. The volunteer centre’s website mentions that most volunteers will be shoveling mud, but list few other details. We could see some damage to roofs of houses on the train ride up to Sendai, but didn’t know what kind of destruction we’d be encountering when we arrived. Fortunately, much of Iwanuma is several kilometers from the sea, a direct result of the lesson learned from a tsunami several hundred years ago, and so the main part of the town is largely intact and was not reached by the waters of the tsunami.

Volunteers moving supplies into temporary housing units

Upon arrival at the volunteer centre (a converted senior’s day centre), we proceeded through registration and were given our task for the day. It’s now been two months since the earthquake and tsunami, and the legion of construction workers here have rushed to erect temporary housing for those living in emergency shelters. On day one, we were tasked with helping these people move their allotment of supplies into their new temporary homes. Working in teams of six or eight people, we gathered the simple supplies of futons and bedding, kitchenware, and the like. These families were overwhelmingly grateful and appreciative to have these things brought to them, but despite the relative comfort of their newly built temporary homes, I was struck by the fact that our groups of six people were now carrying essentially all of their possessions.

We returned to Sendai that night tired and sore from carrying and lifting things all day, but still without having been directly in the tsunami-hit area. The next day would bring us work closer to the coastline, and our first glimpse of the mud now consuming the landscape.

To be continued…

Learning Online – the Ultimate in Flexibility

Storm at Sea © 2011 Brian Farrell

The past few weeks have been chaotic to say the least, and the future is far from certain. After leaving the devastation in Japan, my fiancée and I headed to Thailand to start our spring break. The constant rain and sporadic power outages in Koh Samui encouraged us to change our plans slightly and move up our next flight to Singapore. This was an incredibly fortuitous decision as the airport closed there the next day, and all ferries stopped – the Thai navy eventually had to send an aircraft carrier to evacuate tourists from the area due to the massive flooding. I then had the pleasure of checking out the Singaporean medical system due to an ear infection, and we’ve since returned to Japan and a broken refrigerator full of rotten food. It would appear that lady luck has not been on our side lately, but really it must all be kept in perspective, and considering the tragedy a few hundred kilometers north of here, and the situation unfolding in a still flooded Thailand, we are indeed incredibly fortunate.

Throughout all this, I’ve been working on two of my last courses (only one more to go!) in my masters program. My program is entirely online, and the past few weeks have further reinforced the tremendous flexibility in this type of learning system. My professors have been incredibly accommodating and understanding, but they’ve also been able to offer alternatives for me that simply wouldn’t be possible in a traditional classroom environment. I’ve been able to submit assignments early or late, I’ve been able to contribute in some form or another to the ongoing discussions, and I’ve been able to keep my classmates updated on my situation, all while moving through different countries and time zones. While uncertainty unfolded around me, my masters program was a constant steady link that has helped to keep me grounded.

I’ve just finished a paper where I found that taking an online course does not impact (positively or negatively) on student grades in traditional classes. This is strictly a quantitative measure though – the qualitative benefits of learning online continue to shine through.