Only the old ones left


By Robert Laprade

April 1, 2011

Only the old ones left image 1
Otsuchi--duplex houses occupied by two families or individuals. This is an area where people did not have much to begin with, where younger ones have moved to the cities to find better paid work and where only the old ones are left. Photo: CARE/Robert Laprade

Today we distributed hot meals to evacuees in Yamada. Since the tsunami hit northern Japan, many survivors have not received balanced, hot meals on a regular basis. They are mostly surviving on just rice and some occasional fruit. In a situation like this, with cold temperatures and many older people in poor health condition, it is important to get nutritious food in order to stay healthy. Trained cooks and cafeteria staff helped us to prepare the food to ensure cleanliness. We are providing two meals a day in three locations of one big school compound here in Yamada. The evacuees were really happy and thankful. In this rather positive mood we set off to do some further assessment in Otsuchi, a fishing town south of Yamada. When we arrived there, my good mood was suddenly replaced by pure shock. Described by some newspapers as one of the worst hit towns, Otsuchi was in dreadful condition. Here again we could see the destructive force of a tsunami: debris everywhere for kilometers as far as the eye could see’”houses, cars, parts of large concrete bridges, large electrical turbines, even a few fire engines strewn across the muddy landscape as if a giant child had emptied his set of Legos and children's toys into a muddy, dirty sandbox. In the areas where the waves had reached their maximum incursion inland, some houses were but left with one to two meters of grey, ugly mud that now covers everything. Within that mud, everything imaginable is mixed. Driving through the area of Otsuchi where some of these houses survived, we saw elderly people digging in the mud, trying to find even just a few belongings that can remind them of the world they once knew.

We talked to one woman, who was picking around the smelly mud. She was around 70 years old. The tsunami took her husband away. When we approached her, she had just dug a few dishes out and squatted around a plastic bowl where she cleaned them in water. It was cold outside but she wanted to rescue her few little things; it was all that she had left. She told us that even though a few volunteers came to help, she was really doing the cleaning all by herself. Her house was still standing, but everything inside was destroyed. It was really heart-wrenching. The tears from my CARE Japanese colleagues ran down their cheeks for five minutes; I think it was a blessing that I required a translation and could not understand everything she said. We were so far away from the glittery, high-tech world of Tokyo that we see from the movies and TV about Japan. People here did not possess much to begin with, most lived in small duplex houses, provided by the government and which looked like trailers. This was a fishing area. Those young, agile, and educated enough have long gone to the cities to find better paid work. Only the old ones were left.

We met another woman together with her husband. Both were also digging through the mud, looking for a few valuables. She told me she was the youngest around here – and she was already 60 years of age. She pointed to some of the houses, saying that almost all of the inhabitants are 80 years and older. Most of them are just physically not able to clean the mud from their houses. They need help. They were questioning why the municipality did not help them. When we drove about a kilometer over a hilly outcropping and gazed out over a small bay we realized why nobody would help for a very, very long time. The entire commercial and downtown residential area of Otsuchi was gone. Washed away. The mayor died’”so did anybody else who remained behind or couldn't run fast enough when the warning sirens went off. From the hill, it looked like a bomb hit this town. Probably only one in twenty buildings were even recognizable as buildings’”just foundations or a post or two of metal, maybe a half wall here and there. When entering this burned out ghost town of mangled metal, concrete, and mud, I noticed an overhead highway sign that remained standing. It indicated that Sendai is 230 kilometers away--230 kilometers to the center of tsunami impact. How in the world could it look worse than here?

After this awful excursion into hell, we went back to Yamada. I am glad that we could provide the people here nutritious food. And we'll do more of it elsewhere. Afterall, it's people like the women we met who are the residents of the evacuation centers. There is so much work to do.