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The Diary: June 8

June 27, 2011

June 8, Wednesday

Awake at 5:00, the sun already well up.  Go outside to the toilets and enjoy a stretch in the fresh, cool  air.  Would love to take a walk again this morning, but am behind on  the blog, so go back and burrow into the sleeping bag to work on my notes.

By 5:30 there are several women sitting up in their sleeping bags applying makeup and doing their hair.  I marvel at their dedication to their beauty routines.  By 6:00 the whole place is in motion, with people rummaging in bags, banging cooking pots and utensils, and revving up the fires in the kitchen area.  It is impossible to concentrate on writing any more, so I get up and join Shoko, my early morning companion, for coffee.

Today is another hot day, and as usual we meet first for the morning pep talk from Ted, and the ever-popular “NHK Rajio Taisou” exercises.  For readers who are residents of other countries and not familiar with this phenomenon, you can read a description here:

and see several demonstrations, including the original NHK broadcast version here:

Since Kasuka Factory has no electricity except for a few hours at night (by generator), music is entirely improvised. The exercise leaders are always very enthusiastic, but the followers, though cheerful and willing, are mostly a shuffling, lead-footed lot. If you want to imagine what our rendition of the exercises looks like, check the video of the school kids…

Our assignment for today is Abe-san’s house, again very close by.  We gather our tools and go to have a look.  In this area, the gutters are still flooded and there is a lot of standing water in the streets and empty lots, some of it a lurid, iridescent green. In front of Abe-san’s house the water is a murky, oily brown, and thankfully, there is an improvised “bridge” across the gutter. We will soon realize how necessary it is to our work.

We go to look inside the house, thinking that this job will be similar to Oouchi-san’s house.  Nothing could have prepared us for what greeted our eyes.  The house itself is standing solidly, but all the walls and ceiling on the ground floor have been stripped down to the steel beams, posts and joists, and we can see evidence of water damage on the stairs leading up to the second floor. All the doors have been removed for access, and plastic tarp has been laid down for us.

We are told that Abe-san wants the sludge removed from only the living room.. We are surprised at the assignment–at Oouchi-san’s house we had done the whole ground floor except for the kitchen area–4 rooms and a hallway.  Then we get down to probe at the sludge, and soon learn the truth: the sludge is black as tar, 5-8 cm thick, wet, heavy, and clay-like in consistency.  Under it, there is a thick layer of contaminated gravel that also has to be removed. After shoveling it out into bags, we have to load the heavy, soggy bags onto a dolly and push the dolly over the “bridge” and on to a dump site about 80 meters away.  It is very hard and slow work, and we soon understand why we are assigned only the one room. In the course of day we must have filled close to 200 bags.

The sun is beating down mercilessly on that side of the house when we start, but thankfully moves to the other side by the afternoon. Abe-san comes and goes, delivering drinks in the morning, and more drinks and ice cream in the afternoon. He also helps my end of the work, which by the afternoon has become loading and pushing the dolly over to the dump site, and unloading it there.  I have made about 10 trips already, and am more than happy to move on to just tying up bags and loading them onto the cart. I had done some shoveling in the morning and that, too, was a very hard slog.  I am glad we are all strong and hard-working and can spell each other when we tire of doing a particular job too long.

The worst part of this job is that we know we will not be able to finish it completely.  There is still a ton of sludge visible but unreachable far under the floor boards.  There is still lot of wet gravel caught in the plastic sheeting that the builder had laid down.  And though we sweep and tidy up at the end of the day, we know it will be impossible to leave the workplace as clean and neat as we had at Oouchi-san’s.

As we relax a little before preparing to leave for the day, we listen to Abe-san’s story.  For me, it is the most haunting and harrowing of all the stories told to us in Ishinomaki.

When the earthquake struck, Abe-san was at work.  He and everyone else rushed from their workplaces, either towards home or an emergency shelter. Abe-san’s wife was also at work, and they both had only one thought: the cat, at home by itself.  They rushed home through a crush of traffic.  When they arrived, they tried to catch the cat so that they could run for a safer place with it.  But the cat was wild with fright, and wouldn’t allow itself to be caught.  As they chased it up to the second floor, they looked out the window and saw the tsunami in the distance.  It was like a disaster movie–too huge to be believable. Suddenly the small apartment block across the street shattered as if a bomb had gone off in it, and all the debris rushed towards their house, with the wall of water pushing from behind. Luckily, they had a strong garden wall which kept the debris from smashing into their house.  They watched as all the cars on the street began to float on the water, and other neighbourhood houses were lifted off their foundations and carried away. The water entered the first floor of their house and quickly rose to the second.  As it continued to rise, the Abes climbed onto a table to avoid being pulled into the water.  They were forced to cling to curtains, window frames, anything that would help them keep their footing on the table.  Luckily the water rose no higher than the table, but it took several hours for it to start to recede.  By the next day it had receded to the top of the stairs, and there it remained for three more days.

For 4 days, city workers came by in a boat every morning to deliver 2 liters of water, but they had no food to bring.  Sometime during those nightmarish first hours, a few packets of potato chips came floating up from the kitchen, and they found a jar of mayonnaise on the second floor.  That was all the food they had during the time they were trapped on the second floor. On the 4th day, they were picked up by helicopter and taken to safety.

Three months after the quake, they are still living in an evacuation center. It will be a long time before they can live in their house again. Abe-san credits his and his wife’s survival to two things: 1) the cat, whose crazy behaviour caused them to be still in their house when the tsunami struck (sadly, the cat disappeared and was never seen again); and 2) to his “Daiwa House,” with its steel beam construction. Houses of this design survived the Kobe earthquake, so when he rebuilt 13 years ago, he  said he purposely chose that design and construction company.

Abe-san points to the great swaths of land around his house, now largely empty except for the exposed foundations where houses once stood, and says he has no idea what happened to all the people who once lived there, but fears the worst. Looking out towards the port, we have a clear view of a refinery at the water’s edge: it is at least one kilometer away, and there is nothing but desolation in the space between.

When we arrive back at “base camp,” we are offered yet another chance at a shower, but only if we can be ready to go in 10 minutes.  It is at a local facility, by appointment only, with a time limit of 15 minutes per client.  As attractive as hot water and soap sound, I am too tired to rush about rounding up the necessary change of clothes, towel, and soap.  I remove my protective gear, get a wash from the power hoses outside (a daily ritual for those doing the wet sludge removal), and flop down for a nap before dinner.

Abe house

Inside Abe-san's house

The fruit of our labours: black sludge and contaminated gravel

This power wash with a high pressure hose was routine after sludge work.

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