Thousands of people remain in relief centers in and around the disaster zone
Media interest in disasters is short-lived, but when that spotlight moves on, the disaster remains. Lately, when the media look at the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the focus is on the ongoing crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
However, that focus does not mean that the other impacts of the disaster have been cleared up. Some 130,000 people continue to live in evacuation centers. They have lost their homes, their livelihoods and, often, family and friends in the tsunami that destroyed whole towns.
The Sendai diocese has set up the Sendai Diocesan Support Center, coordinated by Caritas Japan, to provide a Catholic response to ongoing needs.
So far, more than 500 volunteers from all over Japan and other countries have spent at least a few days working out of three "base camps" in Shiogama, Ishimaki and Kamaishi along the Pacific coast.
Akio Endoh spent his 63rd birthday pushing a wheelbarrow, working with about 20 other Caritas volunteers to clear a neighborhood in Shiogama that had been slammed not only by a flood of water, but with thousands of bags of fertilizer from a factory nearly a half kilometer away.
"I wanted to actually experience the situation rather than just seeing it on TV," said the retired Catholic school teacher. "I’ve got my health, so I thought I’d see what I could do."
Endoh and other volunteers cleared debris and piled up waterlogged bags of fertilizer that often weighed twice their 20kg dry weight. The soggy areas that had been cleared by the crew in previous days were lime-sprinkled, a measure against insects.
"The stench is terrible," said one of Endoh’s former pupils who had come from Shizuoka for a week.
Endoh explained his volunteering: "When I was in fourth grade, our town was flooded by a typhoon. The next day, I climbed a hill overlooking the town and saw the extent of the damage. I’ve never forgotten it, and this is much worse. When you think of how much there is to do, what I’m doing isn’t much."
Shiogama is in a small bay formed by a peninsula that protected the town from a direct hit by the tsumami that in some places topped 38 meters. On the seaward side of the peninsula is what is left of the fishing village of Shichigahama. Except for a few houses on the hillsides, the village was totally destroyed.
For people whose family members were washed out to sea and whose homes were destroyed, their only mementos may be water-damaged photos, diplomas and other items dug from the debris. Miki Sekine and other Caritas volunteers at the village’s hilltop soccer stadium prepare what cleanup crews have rescued and spread thousands of photos and albums under the stands for survivors to claim.
It is not all sad work. Sekine laughed as she described one elderly woman who, looking through the trove of pictures, commented with a chuckle, "You know, wedding pictures all look pretty much the same, don’t they?"
Read our blog by William Grimm and other Caritas volunteers