I was not intending to blog about what I’ve been doing the past week. I just wanted to go quietly.
A team of six of us from our agency went up to volunteer at the Samaritan’s Purse base in Sumita, north east Japan. We were there a week, which was not a long time. We worked on four or five houses in Kesennuma city, which, given that around 125,000 buildings were damaged by the tsunami, was not a lot. Obviously we hope it was significant to the houseowners and their neighbours, but even then, they are still a long way from having their houses habitable again.
It’s tempting beforehand to assume that you’re going to come in as fantastic life-saving heroes and make a great impact on the situation, but that’s only because it’s hard to understand the scale of the devastation until you’ve seen it. Nearly half a million Japanese volunteers - from every religion and none - have been involved in the effort for the past four months, and really, the operation is still at the clean-up stage. It does not make sense to talk about reconstruction yet when there are piles of rubble everywhere. There is no short-cut out of this for Tohoku. It is going to take many more thousands of volunteers and many more months, if not years.
The Japanese side of the recovery operation is, by now, well-organised - there’s a great support structure in place for volunteer teams. Teams can check into the local volunteer center, where they receive their work orders, pick up any equipment they need, grab some free drinks. There’s a first aid station available for those that need it.
Similarly, the focus of the Samaritan’s Purse side was also on making things smooth and easy for volunteers to get involved - they housed us (lovely air-conditioned tents), fed us (thanks to volunteer cooks from the local school) and generally made sure that the only things we had to do was to turn up and work. (Although, let’s face it, a few more power screwdrivers would have been a great help.)
The scope of the destruction is difficult to grasp. Coming in from Sumita, the first sign you see of anything wrong is this car: (together with a bit of missing road)
And you think “Well, this isn’t going to be too bad.” But then you go on to drive past the city of Rikuzen Takata, which, apart from a few buildings, simply isn’t there any more. The first few times it’s difficult to imagine that there was ever a city there - perhaps this was just fields.
But then we drove through with the satnav turned on, we became aware that we were driving past post offices, community centres, houses and schools. It was hard to take in.
The most bizarre part was the contrast. Low-lying areas were badly hit, but go up a few meters and everything is normal. Kesenuma, where we were working, had not been wiped out, but seawater had swept through the town, coming in above head height.
That house smelt of the sea: saltwater, fish, and death.
Much has already been done. A Google map of Kesenuma shows the whole city covered in orange-brown mud; that has mainly been cleaned up now. The piles of garbage and rubble have mainly been removed from the city streets. In one street, shops are open - in the next, houses are boarded up: the bottom floor, at least.
The destruction we saw was all material, in that we saw trashed houses and cars but did not meet anyone who had lost loved ones - although of course, losing their homes and livelihoods will have impacted them tremendously. We had some good talks with people and they gladly accepted our prayers as well as our physical efforts. On Sunday we wanted to visit a local church but as we were very nearly there, there was another earthquake and tsunami warning, and we had to turn back.
I said that I initially didn’t want to blog about this, because I don’t want the story to be about us and how wonderful we are for volunteering. That isn’t the point at all, and so I thought it would be better to keep silent.
But I have changed my mind; I actually think it’s important that as many people as possible hear more about this so that they can understand the kind of effect that this disaster has on Japan. There is still a need for many, many teams of unskilled volunteers, there is still a need for much prayer and support for the recovery work, and later there will be a need for teams of skilled volunteers: carpenters, builders, plumbers, electricians and so on. This isn’t about us now, but it’s about you. There’s a role for you to play if you want to be involved in this. Send a team. Get your church to send a team. Support those like Samaritan’s Purse who are supporting teams. They’ve made it very, very easy for people to come and be involved.
Above all, please do something. There is still so much that needs to be done.