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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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Tuesday, 12 April

My first day as a volunteer turned out to be a real expedition. This morning I left to take the 7.14 train following the directions provided by the local Caritas team.

I boarded the 7.14 train but the station announcements started to raise doubts in my mind. The train that I was on was heading towards Fukushima and absolutely not to Shiogama, which was my planned destination.

So I checked at the ticket counter where they reimbursed my ticket telling me that I needed to take a bus as all the trains to Matsushima (Shiogama is between Sendai and Matsushima) had been cancelled after Thursday’s earthquake.

I phoned the church at Shiogama where they told me to take the 10 a.m bus from the eastern exit. There they told me that the bus would leave from the western side. Finally I found the bus stop – there were only three buses per day. So I decided to go to the local church where a young Japanese priest proposed to take me and another volunteer who had just arrived from Tokyo by car.

After a racing drive, we arrived at the Shiogama church. On the way, I could see buildings ripped apart, furniture scattered everywhere, as well as parking areas filled with damaged vehicles sometimes piled on top of each other.

Talking to the priest, I learnt that they had been surprised by the number of offers to come as volunteers with 300 signed up as of today who have come from all over Japan including Okinawa.

At the church, they gave me a Caritas t-shirt and I filled in a form – it’s almost a disease in Japan, it’s difficult to do anything with having to fill in a form! A person from the church took us to the support centre. It was more than 20 minutes on foot in the middle of which he asked us if we remembered the way as we would have to find our own way back!

At the centre, things were under way as follows. First, I filled out a form (surprise!). Then they gave me a green vest with the words “City of Shiogama, volunteer” (in Japanese obviously). Dressed in the vest, we went to sit with the other volunteers while we waited for the other leaders to come and explain our work. For my colleague (who absolutely wanted to stay with me for fear of getting lost), we were sent to the hospital.

Nothing glorious today. I spent the time filing in the archive room.

After the earthquake, the patient files were scattered across the room. We were interrupted by a minor tremor. The TV and the radio always make an announcement several seconds before the arrival of a particularly strong tremor.

There were three young people from Shiogama working with us: two high school students and a young worker. I did not dare ask them what had happened to their own families.

At 3 p.m. they told us to stop our work and to return to the support centre. After handing back our vests, I saw that my colleague was panicking so I proposed that we return to the church together. Once back at the church, I met a Japanese Religious sister who had learnt French in Canada. Apparently, she did not pick up the accent.

They took us to the Tagajo station where I was able to take a bus for Sendai. The ticket was twice as expensive as the train.

During the day, I also learnt that the Japanese government has finally recognized that Fukushima is a Level 7 disaster. I may be wrong but I think that the main problem comes from the plutonium scattered around the nuclear reactor (particularly in the sea). Its extremely long half-life is a concern but since plutonium is not easily dispersed, the problem, although extremely serious, essentially involves the area around the reactor.

After arriving back in Sendai, I went to the church where they asked me for feedback. I gave them my report:

An efficiency problem owing to the fact that the volunteers arrive without receiving any real follow up;

There are no trains available and the volunteers are arriving at Sendai each day. I am surprised that the church does not organise car pooling to avoid multiple trips by the volunteers.

For the future, I offered a number of suggestions based on my work today.

First, gather the files from one group that have been sorted in a specific area of the room dedicated to that purpose. This would avoid the need to recheck the list of files that have already been sorted. Secondly, arrange someone to verify the complete list in order to organise the shelves.

Today I received a report of the aftershocks over the last two days. Yesterday there were 79, including 42 at Fukushima. Today as of 3.30pm, there were 49 including 24 at Fukushima.

Tomorrow, I will give my first English course since the 11 March (for a student who is re-starting his course).

On the way back to Sendai, I took some photos from the bus. The quality is not great.

The first photo shows a damaged truck and scattered objects.

The second is a parking area with some wrecked vehicles.

The third is perhaps the most interesting showing a derelict truck teetering on the top of a pile of debris.

The others show more wrecks in a park including a demolished car sitting right on top of a truck, the most striking photo.


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Monday, April 11

It’s been already a month since the catastrophe. The Earth itself commemorated it with two strong aftershocks, followed by multiple small shakes during the evening. They were the strongest since Thursday.

At 2:46 pm today, a minute of silence has been observed all over Japan.

At the canteen, I see that opening hours have been extended by 30 minutes each week. Water was available for free, but the meal choices are still reduced.

Today, while going to the lab, I decided to use the same route I travelled during the catastrophe. This way is closed officially but I wanted to see it again after a month. I had a look at the effects of the landslide that I witnessed that day. I am planing to take pictures of it.

Concerning my income, I still haven’t found a position as a language teacher, but I have got a quick interview today in a school that is waiting to see if demands picks up enough for them to re-open the French class. I have also been contacted by NOVA, a Japanese company providing a whole range of language courses..


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