Aid Worker Diaries: “I was struck by the strength and resilience of the people in Ishinomaki.”
9 March, 2012
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On 11 March 2011, Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history. The Great East Japan Earthquake claimed nearly 16,000 lives and destroyed some 128,000 homes and buildings. More than 3,200 people are still missing.
In the hours following the disaster, a joint OCHA/UN Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) team was dispatched to Japan. The team helped the Government manage offers of humanitarian assistance, assisted in search and rescue efforts, and reported on the humanitarian needs.
Masaki Watabe, who was recently appointed Head of the OCHA Kobe office, talks about his recent visit to the coastal town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture – one of the worst affected areas.
Everyone has events in their lives that were so shocking that you always remember exactly what you were doing when you heard the news. For me, one of those events was the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast on 11 March 2011.
I was living in New York and woke up to see the terrible images on the television – this was the first mega disaster that the world watched unfolding before their eyes. My family and I watched in horror.
A year has passed and I am now living in Japan working for OCHA. Together with other partners we are mobilizing this country’s tremendous resources - wisdom, experience, and institutions – to help other countries respond better to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
A few days ago, I visited the fishing town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture for the first time. In that town, 3,800 people lost their lives or are still missing. So much was lost all at once – family members, friends, houses, schools, jobs and workplaces. For most of us this is unimaginable.
I visited the areas of Ishinomaki close to the ocean - now they are just vast empty spaces. Many of the damaged houses have been torn down. I felt as if I was standing at ‘ground zero.’ Much of the debris has been cleared and is now piled up waiting to be processed. To date, only 5 per cent has been processed and it might take years to finish.
I went up to the top of Hiyoriyama hill, where many people fled to safety on that day, and quietly looked down at the empty land below. I was there with a man who had survived the disaster and he said to me, “I must live - because something let me live.”
Today, more than 342,000 people remain displaced from their homes in Japan and are living in temporary housing, including more than 34,000 people in Ishinomaki alone. The temporary houses have fairly basic equipment – by Japanese standards – including a refrigerator, a rice cooker and an electric kettle.
Despite the chilly snowy weather, the people living in these houses gave me a warm welcome. I joined the ‘tea salon’ activities organized by volunteer organizations, where we built some flower boxes as Spring is around the corner, and decorated lanterns for the 3/11 anniversary. The men looked like they were enjoying the carpentry work, as it was meaningful and gave them something to focus on. The women chatted with each other about their grandchildren, hobbies, cooking, and their survival stories. The elderly ladies talked about their memories as well as their lives now - and the future. I did not ask many questions. Instead I listened.
I recognized the same sense of sorrow in people that I met after natural disasters or conflicts in other parts of the world. As well as dealing with anxiety and loss, the displaced families are also struggling to restore ties with others, and trying to rebuild their communities. Residents of the pre-fabricated houses were selected by lottery, and houses were allocated to households at random.
Although people address psycho-social needs in different ways across countries and cultures, there is no doubt that psychological health is an essential part of living a meaningful and dignified life. Therefore, meeting new neighbours through occasions like the ‘tea salon’ is important for them to feel connected.
I was struck by the strength and resilience of the people in the temporary housing, especially the elderly ladies who said they were grateful to have everything they needed. I heard how much they appreciated the generous support, but they also stressed that they do not want to become dependent on this aid. The people of Ishinomaki want to give back the support they have received – perhaps during future disasters in Japan or elsewhere.