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Heber Resident Volunteers in Ishinomaki Tsunami Relief

Yesterday I went to the disaster area. I feel like I ought to pay great attention to detail in this entry, crafting each word to convey…all of THAT. The sight. The smell. But each of my attempts is more awkward than the last; the more skillfully I try to paint a picture, the further from the truth it becomes. Simply, there are no words.

Some friends invited me to volunteer in a shelter in Ishinomaki, one of the towns badly hit by the tsunami. Those made homeless by the quake and the flood have taken shelter in a local school, living in the gym. Their physical needs are well-provided for thanks to donations and to organizations like the Red Cross, but the refugees are beginning to feel the effects of a long departure from life as they knew it. So volunteers visit as often as possible to play with the kids and help in any way they can.

It was a long drive—six hours one-way—and the whole time I kept my eyes trained on the passing scenery, waiting for the first signs of disaster. They were surprisingly long in coming; I saw a few cracked buildings and passing army trucks after about five hours on the road. Then we passed through a tunnel, identical in every way to the countless others we had driven through except slightly grimier. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I realized that the grime was thick and streaked with evidence of water lines and debris. When we exited into the afternoon light on the other side, there was no mistaking that we had reached our destination: we were looking down on a town that was literally awash with broken wood and garbage and twisted metal.

Some houses still stood with only broken windows and 5-foot-high muddy water marks to show what they’d been through. Other buildings sagged in on themselves, completely gutted by the cars and other large debris that had punched through them. Materials seemed all wrong everywhere I looked: metal and wood drooped like wet silk; whole roofs lay flopped over like sad pancakes. The air was full of the smell of rotting plants and garbage. Fish lay caked in mud in the gutters where they had been left behind when the wave retreated. We passed a gas station that was nothing more than a hanging roof, with the entire roof and upper portion of a house resting beneath it. The road at least was clear and safe; nevertheless I had to navigate around jutting mountains of decimated appliances, glass, and vehicles.

The school, surprisingly, was relatively unaffected. And the children themselves were just as energetic as any of my own students. To be honest, I’m not sure our visit was all that helpful; the kids were more than capable of entertaining themselves with the cards, games, and books that had either been salvaged from the school or donated. But they were happy to let me watch them play magic monster card games and to share their watermelon-flavored gum with me, provided I keep my picture-taking to a minimum. One girl, Ami, introduced me to her sisters and brother and let me read comics with her. The only time I saw the children become somber was when they told me about their own ALT, an American girl who was killed by the tsunami. The kids liked her. She had been trying to learn Japanese.

The adults, meanwhile, had constructed little pens out of blankets and bags on the floor for their families, and spent most of the time napping within. When snack time rolled around everyone patiently waited to receive their rice balls and little pieces of chocolate while Red Cross workers and international relief forces milled around in bright neon vests, seeing to everyone’s needs.

When it was time for us to go we walked out onto the playground and watched some kids jump from the swings, only to rush right back and yell, “Push me! Push me!” A teenage girl leaned against the jungle gym, avidly texting and faking nonchalance in the face of her boyfriend’s advances. A group of boys played soccer, right in the middle of another group of boys in the middle of a baseball game. It could have been any school day, anywhere, except for the pile of wrecked cars leaning against the slide and the gutted house just beyond. And then we drove away, dodging wreckages on the way, through that tunnel again into the eerie normalcy on the other side.


BY JESSICA HENDERSON   04/19/2011



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