To Shiogama and Shichigahama

William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of, continues his journey through the worst-hit areas, where he will “to try to be useful.”

I started Tuesday with an early 40-minute drive to Shiogama to report on the work of the Sendai Diocesan Support Center. The improvement in the situation along the road from Sendai was amazing.
When I first traveled the road three weeks ago, cleanup was still in the early stages. Now, many of the worst-damaged buildings have been demolished. Electricity has apparently been restored to most places. Houses that were not irreparably damaged often show signs of people living on the undamaged second floor. In some of the less-damaged areas, shops are being renovated.
The broken dike, the levee washed away,
The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,
Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,
And nothing left but floating disarray
Of tree and home uprooted,–was this the day
Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound
And died, having laboured well and having found
His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?
No, no. I saw him when the sun had set
In water, leaning on his single oar
Above his garden faintly glimmering yet . . .
There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds . . .
And scull across his roof and make for shore,
With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.
— from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Epitaph for the Race of Man
Also, the cherries are in bloom. Any time you look above the high-water line, you see blossoms. Another Japanese touch — the Caritas office always has fresh flowers.
As I said to one of the volunteers on Tuesday, “Well, this is Japan alright.” Shichigahama, the town I went to two weeks ago, is still a disaster but now it’s an organized one. The destroyed houses have been knocked down, most of the wrecked vehicles have been collected, though a fishing boat still sits on the roof of the frame of a building.
Now, there are fields of debris, and the next step, already begun, is to haul that off. In Shiogama, some shops are already being repaired. No sitting around feeling sorry for themselves here. I know a lot of people dislike the Japanese, but how can one not love and respect people who can respond so thoroughly, generously, intelligently and efficiently to overwhelming disaster?
The first noticeable thing in the area where the Caritas volunteers were working in Shiogama was the stench. There is a lot of effort going into clearing up as much of the mess as possible before the summer heat sets in. Wet, rotting building materials plus whatever else is in there along with stagnant pools of sea water will make for quite an olfactory attack.
There is an interesting mix among the volunteers. As I expected, there are a lot of students. But, the supervisor of the work crew in Shiogama is a purser for an international airline. The coordinator of the “home base” there where volunteers (some of them elderly survivors of the tsunami) prepare meals for the field volunteers and keep the parish’s hall where they spread their sleeping bags somewhat livable is an opera stage manager.

Volunteers’ access to the evacuation centers is limited. It’s felt that the people in them have enough stress without having to entertain people who want to help them. Probably a good idea.

I’m staying at the bishop’s house. Last night when I came in, Bishop Hiraga was talking with one of his priests. He invited me to join them. The bishop mentioned the problems facing fishermen in places like Shichigahama. The infrastructure for the fishing industry has been destroyed. Fishermen have lost their boats and likely their homes. But, most of them are in their 60’s or older. Who is going to make loans to people that age to rebuild their lives?

Some fishermen, as soon as they heard that a tsunami was on the way, did the one thing that would save their boats; they headed straight out to sea at full speed. In deep water, even a huge tsunami might be only a swell of a few centimeters. Those who got out to sea in time survived and saved their boats, but then returned to find their homes and villages and the people in them gone.


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