I've just gotten back from a week doing cleanup and recovery work in Ishinomaki, a mid-size coastal city in the Touhoku area, north of Sendai. It will take some time to process the experience, so the following notes will be fragmentary, but the most obvious thing I learned is very simple - while financial contributions are vital, what Ishinomaki and cities like it are most badly in need of is boots on the ground. After the tsunami deposited thousands of tons of (probably toxic) mud throughout even the buildings it left standing, the amount of labor required to get even the relatively undamaged part of the city back to a state of usability is mind-boggling - and this is just one city out of dozens or hundreds so affected. Peace Boat is currently the only NPO accepting international volunteers in the affected areas, so if you can spare a week and have a tolerance for camping and hard labor, please contact them.
The Peace Boat deployment center is currently located on the campus of Ishinomaki Senshuu Daigaku (Ishinomaki Professional University). Conditions were cold early in the week, but they're warming up day by day and were fairly comfortable by the time we left.
This is what the upper part of Ishinomaki looks like three weeks after the Tsunami. The roads are cleared, but there is still debris everywhere. The wave entered every building, destroying furniture and fixtures and saturating every first-floor shop and residence with mud.
These are the bags we spent the week filling with the very particular sort of mud deposited by tsunami. Known as "hedoro", this is a mix of deep-ocean organic matter and industrial waste that has settled to the ocean floor, along with the various additional chemicals picked up in the town itself. It has been known to transmit tetanus.
At one point we burned a candle that had been doused in the mud, then allowed to dry. The dried mud burned like napalm.
This is how the mud gets in the bags - collected by brush, shovel, and squeegee. This is physically exhausting work, on top of the mental and spiritual strain of moving through what is, not to put too fine a point on it, the destroyed remains of people's livelihoods.
Of course, more than livelihoods were lost. One of the most heartrending elements of the landscape in Ishinomaki are these flyers searching for lost loved ones. The reality, of course, is that all those yet unlocated are almost certainly dead, their bodies somewhere out at sea or buried under mountains of rubble.
This is where some of the missing may still be located. As we were cleaning the hard-hit but still fundamentally intact upper parts of the city, the Japanese self-defense forces were still scouring the lower part of the city, which has been completely annihilated. Well, almost - amazingly, there are still a few people living in houses that were slightly elevated or for other reasons survived the tsunami.
This is what the most vulnerable portions of the city look like up close - the materials of modern human life subject to an unstoppable force of natural destruction.
There were, in fact, many signs of hope. For now, I'll stick to this one: on the Saturday we left, a high school track team that held practice on the university field where Peace Boat volunteers were camped. So, there are signs of the return to normality, and a great deal of amazing cooperation going into the rebuilding.
I'll post more of the upbeat aspects of the situation later, along with deeper contemplations - but for now, what's vital to understand is that you are needed. There are plenty of medical supplies and food available in Ishinomaki, and while the rollout of supplies to smaller communities has not been flawless, even they are now seeing a reasonable amount of support. But what's still not sufficient - what may never be sufficient, given the enormity of the task - is people willing to get their hands dirty.
Self-portrait with mirror, television, and toxic mud.