I had been a little dubious about getting up in time to depart by 06:30, especially because it was around 02:30 when I went to sleep. I needn't have worried, though, since I woke up at 04:30 feeling surprisingly refreshed, with plenty of time to take a shower and saunter down to the lobby to meet the rest of the crew. We left on time, cheered by beautiful weather, and headed for the first major waypoint for the day, Soma, to the east.
Andrew continued to navigate, using the GPS "navi" function of his smartphone in combination with his previous experience of the area and its roads. We made a smooth transition from the relatively flat area around downtown Fukushima City into the mountains, and soon I was driving on winding, up-and-down roads though beautiful vistas of wooded slopes and gorges, with here and there a glimpse of fields, mostly rice paddies with the occasional stretch f what looked like pasture. It would have been a great road for motorcycling, and I made a mental note to come back someday on a bike.
The truck handled reasonably well, though I wasn't able to devote as much attention to the scenery as it deserved: the road required much of my concentration. This was the first truck I'd driven with an automatic transmission, and it wasn't long before I was missing the ability easily to use lower gears for engine braking. The legroom was adequate but not generous, and since the brake pedal was three or four centimeters higher than the gas pedal, my right knee got a lot of exercise being drawn up and back to brake. I was driving very conservatively; the traffic both ways was very light, but some of the slopes were fairly steep, and there were enough curves to keep things interesting. If you want to get an idea of the terrain, try Google Maps and look at Route 115 from Fukushima Station east toward Soma.
When we got closer to the coast and into the outskirts of Soma, we turned south and proceeded to our first rendezvous point of the day, in Minamsoma. Here, shortly before 08:30 and still on schedule, we met with a group of local volunteers, with another truck that had come from Yamagata with Daniel Kahl driving a full load of fresh Yamagata spring water, and with a busload of other volunteers who had come up from Osaka (!). After introductions all around and a briefing on the days' planned activities, we got back in our various vehicles and followed a local volunteer's car to the first of five temporary housing areas.
After a short drive, we arrived and started the process that we'd repeat at each of the spots on our route. First find a place to park the trucks, not so close as to be in the way but not so far as to make unloading/reloading inefficient. Next, pull a couple of folding tables and some wheelbarrows out of a truck. Then, unload approximately enough of the supplies to fit the distribution plan for this area's residents/households, open crates, set the stuff out on the tables arranged by item type, ensure someone is at each spot to count and hand out the predetermined amount, and start the distribution.
Most of the residents, with help from the local volunteers, were lining up as the setting up was done. When all was ready, each person came up, they gave the number of people for whom they were receiving food and water, handed in their pre-arranged slip, and walked along the the tables collecting the appropriate, pre-determined number of oranges, potatoes, carrots, onions, soup mix, small and large bottles of water, etc., with the help of those handing them out and of other volunteers assisting with wheelbarrows, empty boxes, or sacks, and carrying the supplies to the homes of those unable to manage the weight or bulk.
As boxes emptied, they were put into service for carrying by the residents, or broken down and flattened to get them out of the way if not usable. As the stock by the tables depleted, more cases were unloaded from the trucks and opened. Meanwhile, everyone made an effort to engage the residents in conversation as much as possible, especially the children. Once everyone had received their allotment, everything was loaded back onto the trucks and the little caravan of vehicles drove off to the next area.
This process was repeated four times, for little temporary settlements containing groups of people varied in numbers and demographics: some had more kids and a younger average age, some seemed composed mostly of senior citizens. The total for this run was a little over 800 people in a little over 300 households, and they all impressed me with their cheerfulness and positive attitude. I didn't see a single glum face, young or old, among any of the residents of the adequate but cramped housing, nor among any of the local or "imported" volunteers.
We all gathered in the early afternoon for a quick lunch prepared by local volunteers, chatted a bit, and then departed for the return journey, a little before three.
Stay tuned for the final installment, covering the return journey and the aftermath, in the next post.