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Dispatch #2 from an AmeriCares Relief Worker on the Ground in Sendai

  • March 31, 2011

Christopher Craig, relief worker with AmeriCares emergency response team in Japan, provides his personal view from Miyagi prefecture and the city of Sendai, as he works to help survivors of the epic disaster.

As I worked in some of the hardest hit areas south of Sendai this weekend, I passed through endless scenes of unbelievable destruction from the tsunami.  The entire coastline south of Sendai is razed earth with nothing but mountains of wreckage, shredded husks of cars, and exposed building foundations to suggest that it hosted active areas of human settlement only weeks ago. The mind reels at the scope of the devastation.

Most unsettling of all are the incongruous remnants left in the tsunami’s wake. All artifacts of human endeavor lay strewn across the landscape, oblivious to the Self Defense Force efforts to carve paths out of the ruins. One loses all sense of scale staring into it. What appears to be some sort of smashed electronics device reveals itself a moment later to be the crushed shell of a car. Piles of tree branches turn out to be giant pines uprooted from the seaside and hurled kilometers inland. Debris is rearranged in ways that mock the order of the now-lost communities. The rear ends of cars jut outwards from the roofs of garages and fishing trawlers rest atop gutted public buildings in a world almost literally turned upside-down.

In the shelters of the area, the disruption in the lives of the survivors mirrors the disorder of the shattered landscape. Thousands of families are entering their third week sleeping huddled on the floors of the gymnasiums, town offices, and community centers that protect them from the bitterness of the lingering winter weather. As power and water are gradually restored, families with homes that remain intact return to them; but in the more devastated areas, these numbers are chillingly small.

In Yamamoto, where the destruction was nearly complete, dozens of cars serve as supplementary shelters since the few buildings left that can be used as shelters are already overfull. Unable to provide shelter to all, the local aid providers are doing everything they can to make sure everyone at least has food to eat and water to drink. Even this is a struggle, though, and the best they can do is to keep two or three days ahead of exhausting their basic supplies.

Scene of tsunami destruction, what remains of a traditional wooden house in Watari area

Scene of tsunami destruction, what remains of a traditional wooden house in Watari area

While towns that escaped Yamamoto’s level of destruction are proving more capable of meeting the basic needs for food and shelter, new challenges are emerging. All across the prefecture, plans for provisional housing are in place and construction is poised to begin. In tandem with these efforts, administrators in the towns of Watari and Iwanuma are attempting to restore aspects of normal life for their evacuees. Well-stocked with basic foods, they now face a growing need for bits of comfort. Evacuees living on white rice for weeks are desperate for the humble flavors of miso soup and furikake flavoring that they can sprinkle on their rice. Basic clothing has also been secured in these areas, but the need for socks, underwear, and small towels grows ever more urgent.

The advent of provisional housing will also bring with it new difficulties. While administrators were unable to predict with confidence what forms these new needs might take, all were keenly aware that they would arise. These uncertainties make timely communication and rapid response all the more important.

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