Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 Old Men Crying and a First Look at Okawa

Morning briefing and devotional. Jonathan took us back to the one year later 3/11 remembrance event given by the BeOne ministry. Among the activities, they brought up a singer to perform uplifting songs of hope. She neared the end of the program and began to sing "Furusato" (My Home Town). And as Jonathan looked around the old men were crying, because on top of the personal losses there is a sense that the "hometown" is gone--that even when or if things are ever rebuilt, it won't be the same--the place we knew is gone forever.

Last year we made several visits to Kitakami Cho, following the north bank of the Kitakami river toward the sea. Today we are headed to Okawa, driving on the dike road toward the Pacific Ocean along the south bank of the river.
Here and there the land has subsided, the old roadbed below high tide, and our route follows potholed gravel detours. We are headed to a village beyond the town on an estuary just around the bend from the ocean.
On our left are tidepools, the remains of rice fields, and on our right at the base of the hills, the bottom row of cedar trees are dead and brown from salt water encroachment.
We have been working with the Sakashita family, one of six surviving households in a fishing village, who operate a family retreat inn where parents can relax in the peaceful scenery and the kids can learn about oyster farming. (They say the oysters are famous here for reaching maturity in just 5-6 months.) However because of the subsidence, isolation, few remaining families, and the disproportionate cost of restoring power, water, and sewer, the government has more or less written the village off. Chihiro saw a Facebook post about this area and their plight, so BeOne went to the village to ask how we could help. There are some signs of hope however; the families recently had solar panels installed and Jonathan learned of a relief organization in Texas that supplies self-contained water purification systems, important because the bed and breakfast cannot regain health department certification without a clean water supply.

Now we're passing the bridge that crosses the Kitakami a mile before it opens to the ocean and we pull off to the side in a gravel parking area and stop. In stark concrete behind a neat and colorful memorial, lies the hollow shell of the Okawa Elementary School.
Here as everwhere in Japan, evacuation plans were detailed and drills were frequent. At 20 feet above the water and only a five minute walk away, the four segment steel bridge was the designated staging area for emergency drills.
But after the earthquake there was a disagreement; instead of the bridge, some staff wanted to take the children up the hill behind the school. Without the benefit of our hindsight, this was not an obvious option--a steep bank, snow, mud, small children, and the possibility of landslides.
As with the Kitakami Cho Elementary across the river, the school had no chance; the tsunami reached the roof of three story buildings.
Now the only visitors are a trickle of grieving relatives, and the occasional tour van.
Today, looking a quarter of a mile upstream from the bridge, half out of the water sits a twisted child's erecter set of green steel, the remains of the fourth span of the bridge (now replaced by a temporary span). Out of 108 children, only 38 survived; 14 staff died as well.

(Now the road is one-way; occasionally we pull off to the side so that a few opposite direction dump trucks and local vehicles can pass before we continueThe Memphis team had earlier treated some cedar poles for building a fence around the Sakashita's pond. But today the drizzle meant that the fence project was on hold and all we could do was cover the poles with plastic tarps. Meanwhile, Rusty, Lora, and Cody pulled four stumps--one quite large--out of a yard back in Ishinomaki. Some of the team continued picking up glass and drywall, vacuuming, pressure washing, and bleaching apartments at the yellow apartments where Beth lives.

On the way back we pass several complexes of kasetsu jyutaku (the portable modular buildings used for temporary housing), all outside the tsunami zone. (The government will not build any in the tsunami zone, but some companies are doing so for workers' housing.) Some commentators are pointing out issues with the temporary housing beyond the fact that they look depressingly like shipping containers (who knows? perhaps some of them are). When people fled quickly to the hinanjo (evacuation centers), they were in the same neighborhoods where they lived, with the same people they knew. But when the lotteries were drawn for the temporary housing, they drew from a larger pool and took people with special needs first--elderly, medical problems, etc. So you have concentrations of people needing a lot of services, and old neighborhood relationships have been lost. Further, the rows of housing are all laid out facing the same way--back door to front door, row after row.
If they had been built front facing front, and back facing back, children could play in a common area and you could at least greet your neighbor.

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