A post-apocalyptic world - Blog from the CARE emergency team in Northern Japan

A post-apocalyptic world - Blog from the CARE emergency team in Northern Japan image 1

After we had an early morning planning session over Japanese breakfast, we drove to the coast of Iwate prefecture. We came to a small city called Miyako, and while we were driving around the corner of what seemed like a normal street, all of sudden we arrived in hell. Before us lay total destruction. Cars were upside down, metal parts were scattered everywhere. The bizarre thing was that we looked on one side of the road and there was a supermarket, perfectly standing without a scratch. On the other side of the road, it was total destruction. But it got worse. We drove into Yamada town and there almost the entire downtown area was wiped out. Yamada is a fishing town, and some people farmed oysters and seaweed.Amongst the rubble and mud, fishing gear, nets and floats were strung everywhere. What was once the professional equipment of fishermen now lay like garland on a Christmas tree, but the ’˜trees” were mangled pieces of houses. Heaps of furniture and personal belongings and just about anything one could imagine stuck out of the mass of muck. The area of destruction was three to four square kilometres; we could not see the end of it. I was amazed how quickly the Japanese government has cleared the main roads. We drove through Yamada on perfectly clean, paved roads, but rubble and debris were piled up to ten metres on both sides.

While working our way through the maze of roads, I noticed through gaps in the debris that all houses built higher than 20 metres above sea level stood untouched by the wave. The city hall stood on a small hill and it survived without a scratch. However, right in front a field of cars, house parts, and machinery were burnt almost beyond recognition – black, burnt heaps of debris. I remember the pictures on television when the tsunami came in with rafts of burning rubbish; this now was how it looked after the water receded. Much of it reminded me of the post-apocalyptic world described in the novel The Road.

We entered the city hall looking for officials to whom we could explain our work and get permission to start looking for a base for operations. On the ground floor of the city hall, we sighted a billboard where people left notes for their lost loved ones in case they miraculously showed up looking for them. In another room, the search teams had placed wet and ragged photo albums they had found in the rubble. For some people, these memories are all they have left. We found the mayor on the second floor; he was a very friendly man who told us with a big hospitable smile that he lost his home. However, this was not the first time he experienced a large tsunami. In the 1960s, an earthquake in Chile triggered a series of waves which also smashed the coast of Yamada. He told us that Yamada has 21,000 inhabitants and that around 7,000 people are displaced living in about 30 shelters in schools, temples, and community centres. Around 1,500 families still live in their houses but cannot get out due to lack of gasoline or roads blocked by trash left by the tsunami. Currently there is no functioning grocery store anywhere to be found in Yamada itself so walking for food is not an option.

After meeting the mayor we went to an elementary school. Around 100 people were sheltered there. They told us that in the evenings inhabitants of the surrounding villages come by and the evacuees share their meals with them because they have no means to go and buy food. In one of the rooms used clothing lay on the floor and was being sorted. These were certainly donations, waiting to be distributed. However, we also heard that the food arriving at the shelter is not enough and often a meal of just rice. We talked to a group of women, all of them sitting on their mattresses. One woman told me that she and her family survived the tsunami but her home is completely gone. All her neighbours are dead. She was around 60 years old and the youngest of the group. She said they are all fishermen here but now have lost their boats, their nets and their income. She also did not know whether her insurance will cover her losses, since all her papers were washed away. “Our lives have fallen apart’.

When we drove to another evacuation centre, it started snowing again. Giant white snow flakes fell down. It is still freezing here. In this high school, 800 people have sought shelter. In the gym, mattress lay next to mattress. This place was really crowded. Although orderly, it did not look very comfortable. There was a stage which was now the office of the centre. We passed by the kitchen where three shifts of evacuees cooked whatever was delivered by the local government from donations from around Japan. Army trucks arrived and helped in delivering relief items; we were told the troops also regularly cooked rice for the evacuees.

Tomorrow we plan to go further north but tonight I will focus on putting together a strategic plan for a CARE emergency response while my colleagues Alain and Futaba will begin to write an operational plan to scale up our assistance. We need to locate key relief items and how to get them to the people who need them the most. We are looking at beginning a program to ensure that the nutritional value of meals prepared for evacuees is improved through the introduction of vegetables and fish or meat. Authorities have been overwhelmed in the search for survivors, getting roads cleared, and looking for missing people and just haven”t had the time. Japanese people are used to having good hot food for every meal just as we are at home, so it”s quite a hardship when they”ve lost loved ones, are suffering through incredible trauma, and can”t even get a decent meal. Many evacuees are elderly or children and good nutrition is especially important to keeping up their health in crowded, cold conditions.