Today I worked on a different part of cleanup: Instead of traveling to the affected area, I just stayed at church a bit longer and helped cleaning photos that had been found in the dirt. Some photos had been protected inside albums or similar things and recovering them meant just peeling those open and removing the photos, but I worked on stacks of photos that stuck together or to foil that was originally meant to protect them. The basic process is simple: put the photos into water so the become soft enough to separate them without damage (or at least only a little bit), remove dirt that’s still stuck on them, and hang them to dry. It’s not really complicated, but it requires a lot of patience, a feeling for the material and sometimes a bit of strength (but never sudden movements).
I noticed the different material quality between stacks. Some very old, black-and-white photos were quite easy to separate and seemed to have taken very little damage. More modern ones stuck together a lot more, but with patience they were mostly okay, although those on top and thus most exposed to sea water were heavily damaged. Worst were a bunch of Polaroid pictures. Apparently water from the tsunami had dissolved some of the color and damaged the rest, so the slightest touch on the surface could damage the photo. Most of the time I would just separate photos inside my water tank and then place them in another one with cleaner water, where one of the other volunteers would clean them a bit more and then hang them to dry. After the work was done, the water was very dirty and smelled like the mud in the tsunami hit area.
I was taught a word in Sendai dialect during work: うるかす (urukasu), meaning “to put something into water”, and the others found it funny that I might surprise other Japanese by speaking Sendai dialect. I don’t know many dialect expressions yet, but I agree that it would be funny. 🙂
Last week Saturday
Last week Saturday (2011-06-18) I was in Kyuubunhama again but didn’t get to writing about it until now. I was with the cleanup team again and worked on cleaning a private house, and we also had a food distribution team as usual. The house was a bit below the fire station we cleaned the first time I was volunteering in the tsunami area. We were told it was still uncertain if the house could be repaired, but to determine that it needed to be cleaned up at least somewhat. It was also important to try to recover photos, documents and other important stuff, as well as anything else that was still usable. After a while of working here and there around the house, I discovered a corner with photos, letters and so on in a room with a lot of debris and spent most of the time digging those up. We also got to meet the owner of the house, who thanked us many times. Next to the house, a small ship was sitting on the road.
I’ve been in the area three times by now and know what to expect, but it still don’t really get it and keep thinking things like “This is so crazy” when I look around. Well, I can focus on the work at hand and be happy about the bit of progress we make, but I can’t imagine what life is like for the people who used to live where there’s just a field of debris now. A little uphill from the edge of the area hit by the tsunami I could see earthwork. They were flattening the slope into two or three wide steps, so I hope new houses will be built there soon.
Don’t give up!