Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deluge and Distribution: Minamisoma Redux Part 3

Up early on Sunday morning, we were ready to return to Odaka, but Saturday's  warm fair weather had been replaced by a steadily worsening rain. Learning that the weather caused outdoor work to be cancelled, Andrew announced a change in plans: we'd be helping with food and water distribution in five temporary housing areas around Minamisoma closer to where we were.

By the time we'd made the short drive to the local volunteer center, it was raining so hard that everyone headed for the nearest convenience store to buy vinyl raincoats. I'd brought along a "water resistant" hooded windbreaker, but it resisted the rain for about the first 20 meters from the car to the shop. Even the L-size raincoat I found was designed for someone a lot smaller than I am, but it did at least serve to keep my wallet dry, and the double hood kept cold water from running into my collar and down my back.

We waited a while for the truck to arrive, then began the process of distributing supplies. The first housing area was nearby, just a short walk from the volunteer center. The remaining four areas were relatively short drives away, and the same basic  method  was followed each time. Many of us already knew the drill from previous occasions, once for me last May, several or even many times for some members of the group. 

It's pretty simple: set up several folding tables, break out some wheelbarrows, unload the various items into sections on and beneath the tables, distribute X amount of Y item depending on how many people each resident in the queue is picking up for and how may of Y have been allotted per person or residence (two liters of water, one bottle of soy sauce, three potatoes, two oranges, and so on), keep replenishing the cases of vegetables, fruit, water, etc., from the truck as they're emptied, either collapse the empty boxes or hand them to the residents for carrying the supplies.  

A couple of people in the truck pull cases from palleted stacks and hand them to those outside, who in turn move them to the tables or below them to speed replacement up a bit, others count and hand the items to the residents. The elderly or infirm who are unable to line up have their allotment delivered to them by still other volunteers using the wheelbarrows.

All of this is made considerably more difficult when it's done in a deluge. Reserve cardboard cases quickly turn to pulpy sludge if they're set on the wet asphalt ("wet" here meaning "flowing in a centimeter-deep sheet of water"). That's assuming that the boxes haven't come apart in your arms on their way through the meter or two between the truck and the tables. Wet cardboard boxes don't stack worth a damn, either, nor do they hold up well as containers over even a short wheelbarrow journey. Wet hands and slippery oranges and onions lead to inadvertent juggling and chasing. Communication becomes difficult and efficiency drops as discomfort rises.

[Drenched volunteers. Photo courtesy of Miyoko Ito.]

Very quickly, rigging a big grometted tarpaulin--the ubiquitous "blue sheet" found in construction zones and on trucks everywhere--became a vital first step in the process, strung up from whatever was handy, to provide shelter for the area between the truck and the distribution line. Sometimes finding suitable anchor points, and ways to prop up the sagging center that always threatened to become a pond and collapse the tarp and/or drench someone even more (one guy stood for a half hour or so holding up an umbrella to keep the center of the tarp raised and the water flowing off it), provided quite a challenge. 

But the job got done, and done relatively quickly  Everybody got soaked, but none of the volunteers, I'm sure, even considered complaining: what's getting wet compared to having to live in temporary housing, with few prospects for work, often with family or friends' tragedies still fresh in mind, possessions crushed and/or washed away, and sometimes with the knowledge that your property is behind a no-go barrier, maybe one that will be there for decades.

After we visited the last area, we visited a community center where some of the volunteers from Osaka cooked up some Kansai specialties, takoyaki and okonomiyaki, and we gratefully snacked on those, some fruit salad, cakes, and bitter green tea that had been donated by local organiztions. We were extremely grateful, too, to the local company that donated dozens of towels for the volunteers to dry off with. After this, we were offered a late lunch/early dinner of curry and rice at another nearby center, but our group elected to pass on that in favor of an earlier return to Tokyo. We made a brief stop at the spa again for a shower. I passed on that and took a short nap instead...the prospect of getting nice and clean but dressing again in soaking wet jeans didn't appeal, so I made do with changing into a dry T-shirt and socks, and dozed a bit before the return trip.

Going back wasn't bad, actually. The traffic wasn't as heavy as I'd expected, the rain and fog in spots was a little heavy but not a big problem, there were no more than the usual number of incompetent drivers to be avoided (tailgaters and weaving trucks, mostly), and I was highly motivated by the beer waiting at the end of the trip.

Back in Meguro after six hours or so, I let off a couple of my passengers at the station near which I'd parked, visited the Black Lion with Jeremy Wilson, the last of the crew from my car, met Andrew to settle up expenses--serious kudos to his company en world for subsidizing fuel and toll costs!--had a couple of beers, went off to sleep for a couple of hours, got up shortly before the crack of dawn, and drove back to Saitama.

It was a long weekend, and I put around 1000 kilometers on the car, but it was a very rewarding one, too, and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to visit Fukushima.

Calamity and Clearance: Minamisoma Redux Part 2

Until this last April, the area we were heading for had been within the radiation exclusion zone, and the residents―many of them elderly--have only recently been able to return and try to deal with the results of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Unlike the relief supplies delivery/distribution trip at the end of May, this time the plan was to help with clearing debris and cleaning up. After a brief stop at a 7/11 to get food and drinks for breakfast and lunch, we drove to the volunteer center, arriving just in time for the registration process, briefing, work assignments, and gear/tools issue. 

I didn't count, but there were probably several dozen volunteers, some locals and some from at least as far away as Osaka. When the leaders of each group were asked to come up and  receive their assignment descriptions and map packages, I was surprised to see that one group of a half dozen or so were wearing Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) uniform work clothes. Whether this contingent from the infamous TEPCO were motivated by individual desire to help clean up the mess after the long delay for which their company was largely responsible, or by orders to demonstrate the company's commitment to help, I had no idea. I also had no confidence that asking one or all of them would get me a believable response: having seen too much prevarication and obfuscation from TEPCO already, I wouldn't believe them whatever they said, which probably says a lot about just how bitter and cynical I can be. I was impressed that nobody, including the local volunteers who have far more reason than I to be bitter about TEPCO, exhibited so much as a glare or angry mutter.

After the work assignments were distributed, the various groups gathered what they'd need from the stocks at the center. Our group, augmented to 14 people by some other volunteers including local foreign residents Sarah Jones and Kate O'Berg, had been assigned a combination demolition and debris clearing job. We were to go to a house a few minutes' drive away, owned by an elderly gentleman. Located on slightly higher ground and somewhat farther from the shore than some of his less fortunate neighbors, he'd been spared tsunami damage, but the earthquake had destroyed most of a concrete block wall surrounding his property, as well as producing a lot of assorted debris such as broken roof tiles, crockery, garden tiles, and the like. We were to finish the demolition of the wall that nature had mostly destroyed, and move the debris to a common refuse pile a few hundred meters closer to the ocean, for later permanent disposal. We loaded up a small pickup truck with wheelbarrows, sledge hammers, picks, shovels, and other gear, and drove over.

[From upper left, our group of volunteers with the house owner center front; Andrew Coad; truck label "Revive Fukushima! Minamisoma!"; clearing debris; refuse pile. Photos by Kate O'Berg]

That wall had been built well. Breaking it into smaller chunks took a lot of effort. So did loading the concrete pieces and twisted rebar into our truck and another small pickup the property owner provided, driving to the refuse pile, and throwing the debris onto the pile...over and over again. With 14 of us working at it, though, and efficiency increasing with experience, we finished the job right down to removing the gravel, by four or so in the afternoon, with an hour break for lunch. The owner was ecstatic: he hadn't expected to be able to get the place cleaned up until next year.

[Demolition and debris clearing. Photos by Jeremy Wilson.]

It was tedious work, but directly rewarding. While we were at it, we were sobered by the vistas of devastation left by the disaster. From the refuse pile all the way to the sea virtually everything had been washed away. Across a narrow road from the pile was the shell of a house that had been wrecked but not quite washed away; another crew was clearing up around that. 

At one point,  a couple of us had to drive back to the volunteer center to get a pair of heavy bolt cutters to snip rebar-and-concrete chains into more manageable sizes. We ended up taking a very long route around, because we mistook the closest road for a one-way going in the wrong direction. When we came back, we realized our error: it only seemed to be a one-way road, because most of the lane going the other way had collapsed and been washed away. Having seen hundreds of meters of mangled guardrails, many patches of peeled-away asphalt roadbed temporarily replaced with gravel, and several vehicles--some barely recognizable as having once been cars--deposited in fields or in the middle of wave-scoured areas that had once been paddies or residential areas, I suppose we should have guessed.

[Scenes of devastation around Odaka. Photos by Jeremy Wilson.]

Once we'd returned the tools and truck, we went to a spa further back in the mountains for a shower, then to a Korean barbecue restaurant near where we were staying, for dinner and drinks, then on to small bar for a few more drinks and some karaoke. We were joined there by another volunteer, Florian Valiente, who had just arrived from Tokyo, and before long went back to our accommodation to sleep in preparation for the next day's work.

Boar and Border Guards: Minamisoma Redux Part 1

Last weekend I had another opportunity, courtesy of Andrew Coad, to make another volunteering run to Minamisoma. Truck drivers for relief supplies had already been secured, but it turned out that my car and I could be of service in getting some of the Tokyo volunteers to Fukushima and back. Andrew and part of the group would meet in Ginza near his office, and the rest of the group would meet me at the Black Lion in Meguro. Departing separately at 17:00 Friday night, we'd rendezvous at the Adatara Service Area near the end of the expressway part of the trip, then I'd follow him to our lodgings for the night.

Except for a stuck disk rendering my car's CD player unusable, everything went pretty smoothly, considering. Considering that getting out of Tokyo by car on a Friday night involves getting stuck in traffic moving at glacial speeds until one passes the point where most drivers head east toward Chiba and west toward Saitama. That was expected and inevitable, however, and we made rather good time to Adatara.

We met the rest of the party, ate a late dinner (or in my case smoked numerous cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee), and headed off around 22:00 into the mountains of Fukushima. We'd be driving on dark, winding, up-and-down roads to get to our overnight accommodation in Kashima about 60 kilometers away, and the plan was to leave early the next morning for the volunteer center in Odaka, about 40 minutes' drive to the south.

We'd originally figured on about two hours for this leg of the trip, reasonable given the road conditions and the frequent patches of heavy fog scattered throughout the mountains. A navigation glitch got us on the wrong road for a while, but given the direction was more or less the same it didn't seem to be a problem. At one point just after Andrew paused at a stop sign at a deserted intersection, a wild boar charged out of the underbrush at the side of the road, skittering and gazing at Andrew's taillights to his left and my headlights to his right, and then charged off cross the road and vanished. He was fairly big, but not quite fully grown, I'd guess. A teen-aged boar, perhaps, surprised at the unexpected late-night invaders in his neighborhood.

We kept on, making fairly good time and more or less on schedule, until we encountered a police-manned roadblock. We had inadvertently reached the edge of the exclusion zone, and the police were politely adamant that we would proceed no further, but must turn back and take a different route. By this time fatigue was beginning to set in after seven or so hours on the road, but we retraced part of the foggy mountain route, got onto a viable new one, and eventually reached our destination around one in the morning.

The vending machine beer nightcap tasted great, and the futon-on-tatami bed was comfortable, indeed.

I surprised myself by waking an hour earlier than necessary, and in much better condition than I had expected. The others were soon up and ready to go, and we set off for Odaka.