Monday, April 11, 2011

Where I've been

A month after the tsunami, the general feeling among Japanese citizens is distrust and dissatisfaction with their government, especially with the amount of time it took for relief efforts to reach affected areas. The government’s reaction reminds me of Hurricane Katrina, it took almost a week for the Japanese Self Defense Force to get deployed, and now they are completely overwhelmed with the amount of work that awaits them. Prime Minister Naoto Kan was scheduled to visit a shelter in Miyagi Prefecture but he canceled his visit at the last minute. His reason? It was raining. Right now the US Military is using Misawa Air Base in eastern Aomori Prefecture as a starting point for distribution of supplies to shelters, but their reach is limited as they aren’t allowed to go south of Miyako City in Miyagi prefecture, even on their free time.
At the moment, volunteers and charity organizations are the biggest help to the victims, my friends in Aomori City have started collecting donations and bringing them down to Minamisanriku, a town of about 17,000 that was completely devastated by the tsunami, over half the town is deceased or missing, it is one of the three towns that are on the news in Japan the most. A family I know runs an English school called Ortiz Global Academy, and their relief efforts are known as OGA for Aid; they are renting several 2-ton trucks and doing trips down and back constantly. First they brought clothes and daily supplies like toothbrushes and soap, but now food and water are the highest priority. The Ortizes are an amazing group of people and it doesn’t surprise me one bit how quickly they jumped into action, what does surprise me is the outpouring of support from the local community. One hotel donated an entire truckload of bedding and blankets, and another person promised 10 tons of fresh vegetables. Our biggest benefactor may turn out to be the US Military, Erwin Ortiz has a friend in Misawa City who knows many of the top brass at the base, and we have received over 12,000 liters of bottled water from them, there is still an entire warehouse full that we can take down. We also managed to connect with Misawa Helps, a group of volunteers from the base.
I was in  Aomori City Tuesday night dropping off donations from my co-workers and I heard that they needed drivers and volunteers for their mission the next day; I came to work for an hour, took care of a few e-mails and then brought it up with my supervisor Eriko Kudo who graciously allowed me to use a few days of my yearly vacation time, and I left immediately for Aomori City. We loaded up a small refrigerated truck with vegetables, then they took off ahead of us towards Minami Sanriku while I went with the larger 2-ton trucks to pick up water at Misawa Air Base. We were delayed with loading the trucks so we had to spend the night in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture. On Thursday, we took off at around 5 AM and reached our destination at 8 AM. OGA For Aid has been using the Hotel Kanyou as a base for local distribution, we dropped off a few hundred liters of water there and continued on to reach several other shelters, most of which were simply large houses where people could assemble and receive supplies. I still have a hard time putting my feelings about the disaster into words, everyone has seen pictures of destroyed houses, but it’s quite another thing to drive around the area and realize that the destruction covers almost 600 km of the coastline. There are things I never thought I would see, boats on top of buildings, a collapsed railroad bridge with the tracks falling off the side, countless cars smashed beyond repair. In the words of Angela Ortiz, “Every village has its own individual mix of buildings and rubble, but they are all heartbreaking in their own way”.
The most incredible thing was not the destruction, but how much they have started to recover. The Japanese Self Defense Force has been clearing the roads, rebuilding small bridges, and laying power lines to reach the affected areas. However, there is much left to do; as of now there are still some houses where the roads are blocked, people can only walk down from the hill through the forest or by climbing over rubble, due to house insurance and liability issues we can’t clean up unless we are specifically asked to by a homeowner. The tsunami also destroyed most of their agriculture near the coast, I saw rice fields covered in several inches of sand and some of the bamboo is dying or dead from exposure to salt water. The people still manage to smile through all of this, I will never forget the looks on their faces when we opened the back of the trucks.
People still have hope in the affected areas but the news is starting to move on from the disaster, and I am worried that large-scale support will diminish as the world’s attention continues elsewhere. If anything, Japan’s relief efforts need to increase in scale, most of the families in Minami Sanriku are surviving off one shared liter of water a day, and we want to increase that to 4 or 5 liters, especially as summer approaches. The Japanese way of thinking about supplies is very day-by-day, in normal times people go grocery shopping every night, only buying what’s needed at the moment; this mindset makes it hard to assess exactly what their needs are, if they say “We have vegetables, we don’t need them anymore” it more than likely means “We have enough vegetables for today”, so Angela Ortiz has been staying down there, going to the different shelters in order to take inventory and see for herself what exactly they need.
OGA for Aid’s biggest problem right now is logistics, we have an unbelievable level of support from the Aomori community but are running short of people who can take time off work to drive the trucks, one person has been down 5 times! The big earthquake the other day also presented new problems, it damaged the Tohoku Expressway, the lifeline for supplies and food from Tokyo for everyone in this area as it’s the only road with a speed limit higher than 50 km/hr (about 35 mph). Also, due to the nuclear accident in Fukushima, all roads heading into the prefecture have been closed, including the southern leg of the Tohoku Expressway.  Money is also an issue for their efforts, they have been having problems accepting donations through Paypal; the account was shut down for receiving too much money, Paypal considered it “suspicious activity” but the situation was soon remedied by creating a new account. OGA needs as much as they can get as they are currently renting their delivery trucks at a cost of $400 a day. All we can do now is go forward, looking for help anywhere we can get it. OGA for Aid has done so much thanks to so many people, they have received boxes of donations from as far away as England.
I have to use my vacation days in order to volunteer on weekdays, and Elementary School classes are starting so it will be harder for me to help, but I am willing to do as much as I can to help this country recover. There are many reasons for my desire to assist; first I am here as a cultural ambassador and representative of the USA and wish to show them the love in our hearts; I am also a quarter Japanese so I feel a bond with the people here, many times I see elderly women in Tsuruta and they remind me of my grandmother Amy, kids remind me of pictures of my cousins; finally, I have a fun, rewarding job in an amazing area as well as a place to live and I feel I owe it to Japanese society to repay them however I can. I want to send love and hope to every person affected by the tsunami; OGA for Aid may be a local group helping one town, but my dream is that we inspire countless numbers of people within Japan and around the world to do whatever they can to contribute to the rebuilding of the coastline.
You can find more information about OGA at their website, http://oga-international.com/ or on the OGA for Aid Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/OGAFORAID