|Minamisoma City’s seaside Haramachi Ward, in Fukushima Prefecture, now reduced to a wasteland. The sea is visible in the background. (Photo by Ikuko Takano, April 2)|
Friday morning, April 8, at six o’clock I left Tokyo for Sendai with Isao Tadokoro, executive secretary of Caritas Japan, and his son Makoto, a graduate student. They were delivering a small van to the Caritas relief operation in the tsunami-ravaged northeast.
At about 11:30 the night before, there had been a strong aftershock of 7.1 magnitude that not only woke people in Tokyo, but also closed sections of the expressway we intended to use. So, we left town expecting that at some point we would have to switch from the highway to local roads. As we traveled, however, the radio kept announcing that sections of the highway were reopening ahead of us. By the time we finished the 5½-hour drive, the road was open as far as Sendai, though no farther.
The going was easy, since there was little traffic, much of it military vehicles. As we reached Fukushima prefecture, home of the nuclear power plant that is now the focus of people’s fears, we began to see some evidence of earthquake damage, though nothing significant. Actually, most of what we saw was a lot of newly-repaved areas, especially where the roadway connected to a bridge or overpass. Along the way, we also saw farmhouses with blue plastic tarps on their roofs, probably because the quake and aftershocks had caused leaks.
We reached the cathedral in central Sendai at midday. There was little evidence of damage in the neighborhood. A strut linking the bell tower to the church was broken and though the building is structurally sound, parts of the ceiling have fallen. The nearby Sendai Station was sheathed in the curtains that are used on construction projects. The station was damaged by the earthquake and is undergoing repairs so that train service can be resumed. The general absence of any signs of earthquake damage is proof that Japan’s strict building codes worked. In fact, the news images of the tsunami showed the wave knocking over buildings that had clearly not been damaged by the quake. That’s a comforting thought as I experience aftershocks at home in Tokyo.
My first priority upon arrival (second, actually, if you count looking for a men’s room) was to find a drug store where I could buy some medication for my hay fever. It’s pollen season in Japan and I had forgotten to pack something to control the sneezing and watery eyes that both Makoto and I were experiencing.
Fr. Charles Aime Bolduc of the Quebec Foreign Society took me shopping. He said that there has been no gas since the first big quake and he hasn’t been able to take a nice hot shower in a month. Gas service was supposed to be restored soon, but he feared the latest big aftershock may have postponed that happy day. Fortunately, I was able to get the over-the-counter medicine Makoto and I needed to stop startling folks with our sneezes.
I sat in as an observer at a meeting of the bishops of Sendai and Saitama — the dioceses where the major damage occurred — along with the bishop in charge of Caritas Japan and several other people involved in the relief efforts. They reported that so far as they know, of the Catholics in the area, 12 died, four are missing and 58 families lost their homes.
After the meeting, I talked with Fr. Daisuke Narui who is heading up the Caritas effort. He said they need someone to help with some of their media operations, especially in English, as well as someone who could translate reports to Caritas organizations in other countries. Finally, he said he also wanted someone who could travel to the various worksites and report on the relief efforts for an international audience. I volunteered to go back to Sendai right after Easter and will spend four months working with Caritas Japan, commuting back to Tokyo on weekends for Mass at the parish I help at, do laundry and relax. Since train service will resume soon, that will be fairly easy, since the bullet train between Tokyo and Sendai takes only about 100 minutes.
That night, I was given private accommodations, a sleeping bag on the floor of a walk-in storage closet. The Tadokoros slept on the office floor. I had forgotten how hard it is to roll over in a sleeping bag.
Saturday morning at 5:30, the Tadokoros and I headed out to see for ourselves the destruction caused by the tsunami. As we drove toward the sea, we began to see the effects. Cars and trucks were scattered along the road, looking like the aftermath of some kid’s tantrum. For some strange reason, I was struck by the fact that many of the tires were flat. Perhaps the tumbling in the water, the collisions with buildings and other vehicles or being dragged sideways along the road caused the flats. Not that a flat tire makes much difference if the car is totally wrecked. We passed a fishing boat that was “parked” on the side of the road. It was facing the wrong way (something for which I once got a ticket here), but otherwise looked as if someone had practiced parallel parking with a boat as big as a trailer truck. Houses near the farthest reach of the wave were already being cleaned out, with tatami mats, broken furniture and such neatly stacked at the curb for pickup. As we got closer to the shore, though, the damage was greater.
Our objective was the town of Shichigahama about 20 minutes from Sendai and a sister city of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maybe “was” a sister city would be more accurate. Except for a few houses on bluffs around the town, the place is gone. It was so desolate that there weren’t even crows or seagulls around. The only people we saw was a group manning pumps to drain seawater from a low-lying part of town. My eyes watered, and it wasn’t just from pollen.
Until the day before our arrival, a relief team from Turkey had worked in the town. As a result, the streets were cleared. But, all else was wrecked. In Japan, power poles are made of steel-reinforced concrete. Many were bent over, and some were actually snapped in two. On the seawall meant to protect the town, the sign giving instructions of what to do if the tsunami warning siren blows was still there. No one ever dreamed or nightmared that a tsunami higher than the walls would ever hit.
One of the few wrecks that was recognizable as a house was twisted off its foundations and though the front wall stood, the rest of the house was smashed into it so that the whole house was only a few meters wide. In front of it, sitting on a piece of foundation was a radio-controlled toy car, white with red trim. It was too clean to have been deposited there by the wave. Someone must have put it there as an impromptu memorial to what — or who — once was.
From there, we went to the neighboring city, Shiogama, home of the Canadian priest who died in the disaster. It is a bigger town than Shichigahama, with several cement factories on the shore. A broken water main prevented our going through much of the town. And, besides, I had to get back to Sendai to catch a 9:00 bus to Tokyo. The Tadokoros were planning to take an afternoon bus.
So, I plan to move up to Sendai on Easter Monday and will try to be useful. I hear that Japanese and American military teams have gotten the airport in shape to resume flights this week. Having watched the videos of the wave hitting the airport, I’m impressed that they could get it functioning again so quickly. Grateful, too, that with the airport fixed and the trains soon to resume service I need not take six-hour bus trips. Fr. Narui also said that though he doesn’t know yet where I will stay when I go back, there will probably be a bed rather than a sleeping bag for me.