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The Diary: June 6


The canal: Damaged and dead trees amid new life

June 6 – Monday

After 2 nights of poor sleep, finally slept really well–for 9 hours.  Awake at 5:30, I get up and immediately head out for a walk along the nearby canal. It was probably never very clean, but now it is a thick, opaque green soup. The tsunami came up, overran its banks, and left both its salty brine and a thick deposit of sludge. Though many of the tall, stately pines that line the banks appear dead, wild flowers and grasses crowd each other and a tree I cannot identify is covered in masses of snowy blossoms. In fact, all around this devastated city, small miracles of regrowth are happening: particularly startling are the masses of vibrant yellow and purple irises swaying in the soft breezes, amid the wreckage and dry, cracked sludge.

Back at our “dorm,” fires are already going in the kitchen, everyone busily attending to their breakfast. Today, our assignment is cleaning sludge from the crawl space of Oouchi-san’s house on the other side of town. We cycle over to the high school near her house, park the bikes, and pick up the equipment we will need for the day.  The job is straightforward and simple, but of course not easy. Oouchi-san has removed the floorboards above the areas to be cleaned, but still, getting down to the floor surface with shovels and brooms while balancing on cross beams requires an almost acrobatic skill.  The sludge is thin and dry and removes easily, however, so we make quick progress.  It is a hot, sunny day, and we consider ourselves very lucky to be working inside in the cool shade.

Oouchi-san supplies cold drinks and a welcome lunch of somen noodles and okara (a soy based dish).  Over lunch, she tells her story. When the quake struck, she ran immediately to the local school, which was also an emergency shelter. Even though she is more than 2 kilometers from the sea, the tsunami inundated the first floor of her house, and when it receded, left a layer of sludge. She could not live there for a month because there was no water or electricity. When she came back it took her a month to clean and clear out the ruined furniture, and during that time she had almost no food, as she was no longer in an evacuation shelter. Twice a day she was delivered a small ration  of bread–always the same thing, day after day. She is elderly and her legs are bad, so acquiring food was a critical problem for more than a month.After lunch we tackle the floor under the entrance, where the sludge layer is still wet and thick, about the consistency of pudding.  We try to manage with shovels, trowels and brooms, but the results are far from satisfactory. Finally Oouchi-san offers a squeegee, and it turns out to be the perfect instrument. This allows us to put the finishing touches on a job that we felt truly proud of.

We finish a bit early, so Kubota-san, one of the long term volunteers and a “leader leader,” offers to take us on a tour of the port area, where the damage to Ishinomaki was the heaviest. This is a hard ride. With every block we pass the damage and devastation grows worse. The stench rising from the debris forces us to put our masks back on as we ride. Down by the port there is hardly a building left standing, and those that are are in tatters. Twisted metal, splintered wood, and broken glass lie amid a mangled patchwork of concrete foundations. At one corner there is a small vending truck with two young boys working at a makeshift counter outside it. Kubota-san explains that it is a 7-Eleven. Just behind it is a fragment of metal frame–all that remains of the original 7-Eleven that had been open only a month when the tsunami destroyed it.  After this last stop on our solemn tour, we make our way back to the factory.

On the way to the canal

The neighbourhood cemetery

The canal: Damaged trees and new life

Oouchi-san's house: the scene of our day's work

Happy smiles after finishing the job well

Makeshift 7-Eleven. The goods are in a walk-in refrigerated truck .

Ruins of the previous 7-Eleven
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