Cleaning up Tsunami Damage

Saturday morning I got up at 4:30, because the meeting time for a tsunami relief operation I had signed up for was 6 am. Together with two other volunteers from Sendai Baptist Church we went by car to Kyuubunhama (給分浜), a fishing village near Ishinomaki (石巻) and about 9 km south of the Onagawa nuclear power plant (click here to see it on Google maps).

The first part of the road trip was pretty normal, through Sendai and along the highway to Ishinomaki. Inside Ishinomaki, however, things started to look like I’m sure you’ve seen on-line, in newspapers or on TV: damaged or destroyed houses, boats and ships scattered all over the city, smashed cars and heaps of dirt and rubble. Here and there self-defense force trucks were distributing drinking water. The roads had been cleaned very well and were in a fairly good condition for the most part, except for some cracks and a few places were only gravel was left. Maybe the road had been washed away by the tsunami and was temporarily restored this way. Once in a while our driver would point at a red mark (tape or spray paint) on one of the car wrecks. He told me that those marks show where dead bodies have been found. Later I noticed similar marks on some damaged houses as well.

We arrived at our destination, a small fire station in Kyuubunhama slightly before half past eight, just in time for an earthquake. Damage and dirt showed that the building had been completely submerged by the tsunami, but apparently the supporting structure was okay. A truck with equipment was already there when we arrived, and more team members arrived soon after. I don’t have a precise number, but we were about 20 people, mostly from churches in the Sendai area, but some from as far away as Tokyo. We split up in two groups: a cleanup group (including me) and a “catering” group, which would supply food to residents of the area and lunch for us.

My first task was to help set up toilet tents for our team. That was quickly done, but I broke a hammer while knocking the tent pegs into the stony ground. My coworker just commented I was very strong and handed me the second hammer. 😳

A small tent with a portable toilet, heaps of rubble and a damaged house in the background.

Most of the day was spent removing rubble, dirt and a few damaged building parts. There was quite a lot of debris inside the building, but our team worked together very well, so we could remove it quite quickly. Moving broken wood, wall parts, glass or similar stuff is no big deal with the right equipment, but some other items, like a skipping rope with a name written on it or a completely soaked manga book, made me wonder: What might the child be like who had used this rope? Who read that manga? Are they even still alive?

Until a small break around 11 we had roughly cleaned the garage and removed a lot of debris from the common room (see the picture below). However, the floor boards and parts of the underlying structure had to go, too, and there was more dirt below.

Room with partially destroyed elevated wooden floor and damaged walls, dirty.

For lunch we went up the mountainside to where the catering group had set up camp, right at the edge of the area hit by the tsunami. The lunch was quite good, and we had great weather, so we could enjoy our lunch outside. I had soup, vegetables, onigiri (rice ball), bread and even a small piece of sashimi. After the lunch break we continued the dirt removal, later even with high-pressure cleaners. Someone found the fire brigade’s flag, which was then cleaned as well as we could and put up inside the garage.

The fire brigade's flag, put up inside the cleaned building

As you can see in the photo, the wall has a big hole (it’s in the building corner closest to the sea), and the roof needs work, too, but we did remove debris and dirt from the building. Packing up our equipment took some time, but after group photos (no event in Japan is complete without that) and prayer we left around half past three. Thanks to everyone who helped! At least in our car everyone was tired, so we didn’t talk very much on the way back, and I nodded off for a while. When we left the highway in Sendai somewhere around the port, I saw some minor tsunami damage there, too. A bit before seven I finally returned home.

Today I have some sore muscles, but that’s a small price to pay. I wonder if they’ll be able to repair the fire truck, which stood only a few meters away from the fire station we cleaned.

Damaged fire truck standing at a roadside in the middle of tsunami debris.


(Hang on, Tohoku!)

6 thoughts on “Cleaning up Tsunami Damage

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