On April 15th, Br. Shantamrita Chaitanya, Embracing the World’s representative in Japan and Director of Amrita Heart, our Japan-based representative organization, set out into the disaster-affected area. At the end of the road, he encountered the tsunami-hit coastal town of Rikuzentakata, which had been largely overlooked by relief organizations due to its remote location and small size. However, Br. Shantamrita found Rikuzentakata in desperate need of assistance, and after receiving a formal request from the town’s municipal government, he decided to concentrate ETW’s relief efforts on Rikuzentakata. This is the story of how it happened:
I spent most of Friday, April 15th, collecting all the needed items for the disaster-relief work. We bought food, work gloves and masks to protect against infection and potential radiation. We also had to buy a cheap tent and took a few thin sleeping bags from the Tokyo ashram, as that was all we had. We knew it would be colder in the disaster area, but never imagined exactly how cold it really was. There were three of us: Nath Hoshi, Santosh Miyazawa and myself. By the time we left the city, it was almost 9:00 p.m., and we had 450 km to drive. Our destination was Ishinomaki City, where ETW’s efforts had been focused until then.
It is said that Ishinomaki faced a tsunami of about 10 meters in height, which rushed 600 meters inland, destroying more than 500 houses in the coastal ports. The death toll here alone is recorded as more than 5,000 people, or about 19 percent of the total casualties.
As we approached Ishinomaki, it was about 2:00 a.m., and the low-fuel lamp flashed in our car. There had been no gas station for a long way, and we continued to search in vain. Even in the areas of the city unaffected by the disaster, all the gas stations were closed. As we were already running on reserve fuel, we had to stop in front of a gas station and wait for it to open in the morning. We parked across the street, in the parking lot of a convenience store. As I got out of the car, I smelled the strong salty odor of seawater. There also seemed to be a tinge of decaying marine life or something along with it.
We set up our tent right in the parking lot and were in our sleeping bags by 3:00 am. Though we were very tired, it was not easy to sleep, as the wailing of ambulances persisted for some time. Even in the middle of the night, people were walking past our tent, discussing their plans of where to go, what to do next, how to manage, and so on. Somehow, we fell asleep…
A few hours later, Santosh woke me up, saying that the gas station was now open. We packed up our tent, got in the car and started our day. Relieved that our tank was now full, we proceeded to the university campus, where Viveka had been based during his relief work with IVUSA (International Volunteer University Student Association). Upon our arrival, we were impressed to see thousands of volunteers milling about, registering for volunteer work, pitching more and more tents, etc. Ishinomaki is just one hour from Sendai city, which has a population of one million and is the capital of Miyagi prefecture. Due to the ease of access in reaching Ishinomaki, thousands of volunteers had been flocking there to help.
Seeing the level of organization and a seeming saturation of volunteers, we decided to travel farther north, to assess the situation in the next major residential area: Kesennuma. Due to the damaged roads, it took us two and a half hours to drive just 80 kilometers.
More than 2,000 people had died in Kesennuma, and there seemed to be the same amount of damage as in Ishinomaki, but far less volunteers to help. When we arrived, disaster-relief supplies were being distributed to a few thousand refugees, who were lined up for hundreds of meters. Some of them were wearing only sandals and old, worn-out socks. It was obvious that they had lost everything in the disaster.
Relief supplies were kept in neat rows, outside the gymnasium where the remainder was in storage. The refuges were divided into groups of 100 people, and allowed 10 minutes to collect the supplies they needed, and stuff them into a single garbage bag. Their eyes lit up as they sifted through boxes of socks, shoes, undergarments, sleeping bags and other items. For hours, a steady stream of people poured out of the school ground, each of them carrying a single garbage bag. Even the elderly and small children had to carry their own bags, heavily laden with supplies. They had no transportation to the refugee camps; they simply had to walk. It began to rain. The whole scene brought tears to my eyes.
We joined in the IVUSA again here, helping distribute relief supplies and serve a hot meal to the refugees. That night, we camped out with the students at a campground in the nearby hills. The temperature seemed to drop down to freezing. Fortunately, a few people shared some blankets with us, so we managed to sleep somehow.
The following morning, we joined the students for more mud-busting activity!
In the afternoon, we decided to travel even farther north, to survey the situation. Seeing the difference between Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, we figured that there would be even more help needed in the next town, 25 km to the north: Rikuzentakata. A 13-meter-high tsunami hit this sleepy coastal town of 23,000 people. About 10 percent of the population had died in the disaster, including about one-third of the city officials. At least 70 percent of the original population is now spread across 88 refugee centers, as their households were damaged or destroyed. Especially in the city center, the devastation is so complete that it numbs your mind.
Searching for the local volunteer center, we decided to first try the city hall. Originally, there was a beautiful city hall, which looked like this:
When we reached the location, this was the sight that met our eyes:
After further investigation, we somehow reached the volunteer center and met the person in charge. Unbelievably, they are operating out of a small restaurant, which has been converted into an office. It seemed an impossible task to coordinate their urgent needs in such a minimal environment. Anyhow, the manager there encouraged us to bring a relief team back as soon as possible, providing us with all the needed information. With the clearly critical need and shortage of volunteers, we decided to make Rikuzentakata the destination of our next trip.
Tomorrow, 10 people will leave from Tokyo and Sendai, beginning work in Rikuzentakata on Tuesday. I pray for the success of their efforts…