I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend on a trip to Watari where we would be volunteering in the tsunami hit region of Sendai. I shared the driving and we left Tokyo after work, arriving in Sendai close to midnight, that did not stop us venturing out and finding a local bar, where we met & dransk with the locals until 2am.
The following morning we drove to the volunteer centre, and on our short 20 minute journey, I caught my first glimpse of the disaster zone. From the expressway, suddenly the fields to our left were brown, littered with cars and ships, this was 4-5 kms inland ! On arrival, we registered, were given insurance and then assigned to a team, totalling ten people. Other than my friends, the team comprised Japanese men, a pilot & a policeman from the murder squad among them. I was impressed at how well organized the centre was, we were issued with thick gloves and steal soles to put in our boots to protect from glass and nails.
Today's task was to clean the garden of a house that had survived the tsunami. On reflection, it seemed nonsensicle that we were tidying someones garden, when there were so many other more needy victims. However, the owners family had already cleaned the house and i suppose they were now utilizing their alloted volunteers.
As we drove into the zone itself, there was a strong miliatry presence, and we had to pass through several checkpoints, only allowed to pass through once confirmed that we were volunteers.
The garden itself was littered with mud, grass and other debris. The owner told us that the water had only lasted 5-6 minutes before retreating to the sea, yet the damage was indescribable. No houses in the zone have any water or electricity. All drains are blocked, telegraph poles down, literally everything had been caked with mud.
At lunch time we walked around taking photos, amazed at the sights that greated us on every turn of the head. Houses had been spun around, others up-ended, although many had disappeared altogether. Inside the houses painted a sorry picture; it was there that you were reminded that thsi was once someones home. Rooms were full of debris, all of it layered with mud and grass.
There was an electric railway near the house, yet the overheads were wrecked and a pantograph lay twisted on the ground.
Once we had finished working we drove around to see more of the damage. At one point we stopped by the road and saw rows of 'brand-new' cars sat on top of one another completely wrecked. this was 3kms inland, yet dead fish and crabs littered the ground, childrens toys, shoes, household furntiure littered the fields along with smashed cars and boats. Whilst we were looking around there was a lot of activity with the emergency services, and we were informed that a body had been found.
As we strolled through the carnage, one of our party who remained by the vehicles was questioned as to our intentions. The authorities are weary of looters, the most likely candidates apparently being foreigners.
We then headed to the beach and saw the smashed greenbelts. The trees were littered with clothes and flattened, all facing inland. A truck with a crane on the back lay on its side on the beach, this really did look like a Hollywood movie set. Tetrapods (weighing 50tonnes)were smashed and had been shifted hundreds of metres up the beach.
An outdoor pool on the beach was filled with sand and debris, the pool house was a horror story in itself and I cannot imagine hwo anyone would have survived being in there.
The remainder of our day was just as shocking, the constant frown of my expression later caused a headache. We saw the airport, and houses that had been 'domino-ed' into each other, the former occupants stood outside, watching with tears on their cheeks.
We saw a wooden temple, completely intact surrounded by flattened buildings, some make take it as a religous sign, although a sturdy oak tree just in front of it may have offered adequate protection.
I dont think anything can really prepare the human mind for such images. yes, I had seen the TV coverage, but to actually see the effects of such devastaion was a truly numbing experience.
The next days work was far more meaningful, we were clearing out a house that was within 1kms of the sea front. The water mark was visible and literally everything inside had been destroyed. our task was to clear the house and throw the contents on the roadside. Furniture, tatami mats (floor-boards), clothes, ornaments - absolutely everything was being discarded. I opened a shoe cupboard to start throwing shoes, every shoe was full of sea-water. The smell of sea-water was prevalent, although there were stronger smells emanating from the huge fridge-freezer (I managed to busy myself in other tasks when that wsa being thrown out). That was a nice thing about this type of work; it is easy to switch tasks. Maybe I shall go on wheelbarrow duty, or maybe I will take the curtains down, rake mud off the floor, or assist with clearing water from the drains....
At lunchtime, a stroll around the corner showed us just how lucky 'our house-owner' had been. 90% of buildings had been flattened, cars, boats and bicycles littered the area. The army had done a great job clearing roads leaving the debris at over a metre high either side (I know as I fell off it).
I was with a press jounalist, who at one point warned us to steer clear of a certain car. A bad smell was emanating from it, and my friend said that he was familiar with the smell of death.
As we got closer to the shore front, we saw some bigger ships, most were perched on and in houses.