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Dispatch #3 from AmeriCares Emergency Response Team at Work in Miyagi

  • May 3, 2011

On April 14, an AmeriCares aid delivery arrived at the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki, supplying 60 medical teams working in 14 locations with materials to provide primary care to people living in shelters and camps. A second relief convoy supplied another partner in the city with 5,000 water bottles for soup kitchens providing hot meals to the shelter-bound.

Christopher Craig, relief worker with AmeriCares emergency response team in Japan, delivers a first-hand glimpse of the epic destruction along the coastline of Miyagi.

In an effort to assess need and deliver basic supplies amidst the massive destruction, we traveled north up the coast to some of the most severely damaged areas in Miyagi, beginning in Arahama and ending in Ishinomaki. It was a stark reminder of the crucial need for ongoing relief.

“Within minutes, the scenery changes to desolation and destruction.”

Arahama is a town once home to small clusters of farming homes, fields and paddies as well as an industrial area with large factories. Now there is nearly nothing left. Approaching from the city center, aluminum cans blanket the landscape on all sides of the gutted hulk of the Kirin Beer brewery. Closer to the coast, the debris thickens.  Shells of washed away cars rest at odd angles. Within minutes, the scenery changes to desolation and destruction. Some larger buildings still stand, supported by bare skeletons of framework. All others lie in splinters on the ground. Haunting my thoughts is the knowledge that this shattered landscape is where the tsunami first hit, with warnings arriving too late for many.

We proceeded up the coast to Tagajo and Shiogama, neighboring cities which suffered extensive damage. Piles of wrecked cars lay on either side of Tagajo’s main road, bulldozed to allow passage of traffic. As we approached Shiogama, cars lay next to scattered fishing vessels, creating a jarring juxtaposition of unrelated elements in the destruction. The wave did not penetrate as deeply into Shiogama, but the city suffered damage of a different sort when the sewer system burst, introducing significant health dangers and leaving the heart of the city a ghost town.

“This is a place that was, but is no more.”

Our final destination is the most horrific. Ishinomaki, about an hour northeast of Sendai, is the second largest city in Miyagi. Unlike Sendai, where residential and business districts are located far from the ocean, some of Ishinomaki’s most populous and active areas are on the water. The buildings here are largely multi-story apartments and office buildings which channeled the wave, leaving sidewalks lined with boats and debris. Main floor shops and stores are wrecked. People are without work and homes. But even these sights could not prepare us for the apocalyptic destruction surrounding the coast. Inland, for a kilometer or more, there remains little but deep piles of twisted metal, splintered wood, and shattered stone. The debris marks the difference of scale between Ishinomaki and the other coastal areas we have visited. These were once densely packed streets of houses and shops, apartments and restaurants, businesses and factories. This is a place that was but is no more.

Tsunami warnings reached many Ishinomaki residents in time to evacuate, leaving the number of dead and wounded mercifully lower than the scope of the destruction suggests. However, survivors face unmitigated desperate straits. Thousands of residents now live in dozens of improvised shelters. While public schooling and some trappings of normal life sputter back into operation, these families face a future without homes, land, and jobs.

Destruction in Soma City. Photo by Christopher Craig. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by Chiba Mikio. All Rights Reserved.

Paruse Iizaka Evacuee Shelter.

AmeriCares has just issued a grant to Peace Boat, a local NGO, for a large-scale community clean-up initiative in Ishinomaki. Hundreds of volunteers are slated to hand-clear mud and debris from houses, to speed the process by which people — particularly the elderly – can settle back into their homes.

This hard-hit city has received significant attention from news programs and touring celebrities. What Ishinomaki requires, though, are more substantial forms of support. Local administrators are doing a remarkable job planning for construction and seeing to the needs of the injured and displaced.  This work remains under the shadow of looming supply shortages. The sheer volume of food, medicine, and other supplies needed to keep shelters and overwhelmed hospitals running presents a constant challenge just to keep enough stock for a few days, let alone the weeks and months that it will take to resettle evacuees.  A long road to recovery through a ruined landscape lies ahead. 

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