Day 2 with Project Tohoku in Ofunato

I was with the same ditch project, but today I was working on the canals instead. I started off taking buckets from the diggers and wheeling them to the dump site, but in the afternoon I jumped in the canal and helped shovel. For the last hour or so I was working on a different section of the canal that we haven’t reached yet. I fished out the biggest pieces of debris like roof tiles and other things and put them on the side of the road to be carted away.

Everything else other than that was the same as yesterday. We have a different team of people, so things ran a little differently, but it was all tough labor out in the sun.

Here is some of our group eating our delicious bento lunches. We ate at this small house near the work site, and the lady there made us soup yesterday and today. Yesterday she also boiled us eggs, and today she gave us cans of miso sardines. Very tasty.

This is the area of town where we were working. As I mentioned yesterday, the destruction was very spotty. Some things are totally gone; others are still standing. This photo is facing the coast, so you can see that some things closer to the coast are still standing.

Here’s a photo of a very clean ditch. I’m not sure if our team worked on this, but this is what they look like when we finish with them.

And here is the canal I was working on. This is what it looks like when it’s dirty (although we had done one pass…the section I worked on at the end was much, much dirtier).

And here’s a clean section.

A group of Japanese officials came by and took photos of us working. I gave them my email, so hopefully they’ll send them my way soon. I’ll post them up when I get them.

After two days on the ditches and canals, I’m ready for a new assignment. There’s a project going to do some work on a the grounds of a school, and I’ll be joining them. In the afternoon we should have a chance to play with the kids. I’m very excited to be back teaching again, even if it is just for an afternoon.

Day 1 with Project Tohoku in Ofunato

After an overnight bus to Morioka and then another 2.5 hour ride from Morioka through the mountains to Ofunato on the coast, I arrived at the All Hands Volunteers base near the Sakari area of town yesterday at around 11am. I was oriented along with one other volunteer who was also on my bus.

All Hands has set up a command center in the Welfare Building in town. What I’ve seen of the main building is a small, generic Japanese office building. A room on the first floor has been cleared out and spread with temporary tatami mats. It’s being used as the main office and a common area. There is a big board with a list of teams and tasks, a corner where the All Hands staff works busily, wireless Internet that seems slow but more or less reliable, several Japanese kerosene heaters, and a shelf of luggage for the people who are living on the second floor. I haven’t seen the second floor yet, but I imagine it’s a big open area, converted office spaces, with mattresses and sleeping bags laid out.

One of the staff members drove me up to the other living area, Fukushi no Sato Center, which is about a 10-15 minute drive back up toward the mountains from base. I’m not sure how the numbers are split, but there are around 60 volunteers right now. The center is a rehabilitation center/old folks home which is currently housing some evacuees as well. It has a medium-sized Japanese-style bath on the first floor across from what looks like a dining hall. The second floor has a common room and several empty rooms where volunteers and evacuees are sleeping.

After a full day of travel, all I could manage was a quick walk down to the stores before a bath and bed. The walk was made quicker by a local lady who offered to give me a ride when I looked confused. She was an English teacher, eager to talk, and very friendly. Everyone here has been incredibly thankful for the help.

I passed out early and was up equally early. We left the Fukushi no Sato Center at 7:30 and had breakfast at the Sakari Base where we ate pancakes and had a meeting. I introduced myself along with the other new recruits and folks returning from breaks. I found out that one of the All Hands staff members is an alum from my high school. He graduated in’87, me in ’00. It’s a small, strange world. They also explained all the jobs and after we signed up.

I signed up with for a project titled “Ditch Bitches.” We were ten people and split into two groups, one of which was cleaning a larger canal with running water, the other of which was cleaning the roadside ditches in one of the neighborhoods hit by the tsunami. In the countryside, roads within towns and villages are all lined with knee-deep concrete drainage ditches. They are affectionately called “gaijin traps” because they are uncovered and foreigners have a tendency to drive into them and get stuck. In a bigger city like Ofunato, they are covered with heavy concrete slabs or grated metal drain covers. We pried all of these open and spent the day digging the mud and debris that accumulated in them. We dug up all sorts of things – broken tile and glass mostly, but also spoons, forks, iPods, broken CDs, little unopened bottled and can drinks, knicknacks, all of it covered in mud. At one point in a particularly deep, muddy section, we unearthed a mysterious frozen white liquid that was wrapped in some kind of packaging. It was still frozen after all this time.

We worked from 8:30 to noon, had an hour for a very satisfying bento lunch, and then worked until 4:30. The weather was nice – sunny and breezy, although the breeze did blow in a strong smell of rotten fish (or rotten something) that kind of lingers over the area of Ofunato near the coast, despite the fact that we were not in the immediate harbor area.

The area we were was still somewhat intact. There were a good number of buildings that are standing, and these increase dramatically as you move away from the coast toward higher ground tucked into the area between mountains.

Some houses had the first and second floors boarded up, some just the first floors, but many of the buildings had upper floors that haven’t needed to be gutted. But there are also empty lots where buildings have been completely swept away. In the distance I could see the NTT building closer to the coast that where we were, and it was large enough to still be there, but its windows too were boarded on the lower floors. On all the empty lots there are neat piles of collected metal, including some cars and appliances. We were dumping all our mud and debris on one of these empty lots using wheelbarrows. As I was wheeling one load to the dump site, I saw a plaque in the road that was marking the spot where the tsunami from the 1960 earthquake in Chili reached; needless to say, the recent tsunami went far beyond that spot.

My whole body is sore, and when I finish I will have forearms like Popeye. For now, I am glad to have Ibuprofen and glad to have been helpful.

After work, we bused back to the Sakari Base, had dinner, and did the evening meeting where team leaders reported back about the day and we all signed up for jobs tomorrow. I was tempted to sign up for something new to see a different part of the city and a different project, but I’m sort of a completionist and we didn’t quite finish all the ditches that we started today. I just hope that I don’t have to man up and jump in the canal tomorrow because I would come home very dirty. I’ll be wearing my work pants tomorrow, so it won’t be too much of an issue if I have to.

So now there’s just enough time to hop in the tub and then pass out in my sleeping bag before tomorrow. I’ve been outed as a snorer, which I don’t think bodes well for my restfulness tonight – rookies probably get a one day stay of leave on being disturbed for their snoring.

Katrina and the Quake

A month after I arrived in Japan on the JET Program, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown New Orleans. I had been placed in Nishiaizu, Fukushima Prefecture, a small town of 8000 people nestled in the mountains on the northwestern edge of the prefecture. My supervisor told me it would probably be okay to go back to the U.S. and help out if I needed to, but what could I do? A good portion of the city was under water, and my family had already evacuated to Memphis. I stayed and watched from afar.

At night I drank beer, watched CNN, and wrote angry Livejournal posts wondering why the O’Brien family of journalists had exchanges like these on international television:

Soledad: Clearly something is burning off in the distance.
Miles: It’s still burning. Clearly no sign of it being put out.


And now, nearly six years later, I find myself in the same position. I moved back to New Orleans last summer, so I’ve been forced to watch news from abroad and trace the paths of friends in Japan from Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Apparently, the journalists from outside are bad and the government response is slow, just like in New Orleans.

However, I’m confident that Japan will recover because I’ve realized that Japan is, secretly, just like New Orleans. They both pride themselves on the strangeness of their culture, they both eat really weird things, and they both love to drink beer outdoors. More importantly, they are both geographically exceptional; New Orleans was founded on the soft alluvial deposits of the Mississippi River Delta and Japan on the intersection of tectonic plates. If New Orleans can recover (and it has), then surely Japan can. Chin up, Japan.

The other reassuring part about being in New Orleans is that I’m in more of a position to help. Japan has a special place in its heart for New Orleans, as evidenced by the $44 million in aid it provided after Katrina. I don’t think New Orleans will approach that amount, but we can certainly try.

A consortium of Japan groups here in town has banded together to create the NOLA Japan Quake Fund. We raised over $8000 during our first day online, and that was without the assistance of any events. There will be a number of events all over town, so please follow @NOLA4Japan to keep up with the latest information. I’ll probably be broadcasting the information on my own feed as well.

Based on the response we’ve already had, we’re hoping to raise a good chunk of change – something approaching $100,000 if not more. This isn’t an impossibility. We already have many different groups who want to contribute to the fund. I’m involved with two in particular: Saturday, April 2 will be “Drink For Japan” at Avenue Pub, and on Sunday, April 10, Rock n Bowl will be hosting a celebration of prominent local bands that feature Japanese musicians – it’s going to be an all-start lineup, so be on the lookout for more information.

Please spread this info as widely as possible, especially if you are in the New Orleans area.