It’s 3pm and my back hurts. It doesn’t ache, it hurts. I’m coated with dust, my gloves are caked with black sludge, my body is soaked with sweat, my neck is sunburned, and I’ve just pulled out a rusty and twisted nail that sank half-an-inch into my boot. For most of the day I’ve been bent over picking up rubble and debris by hand, either carrying it armful by armful to one of the monster piles placed around what used to be the town of Minami Sanriku, or scooping it into wheelbarrows for someone else to haul. There are 30 people on our team, all of us volunteers, coming from across Japan and as far away as Malaysia to lend a hand and try to make a difference. We don’t talk much as we work, but we work together smoothly and nobody stops for more than a few minutes to get some water or catch their breath. There’s a lot of work to do.
I look down the 75 yards of drainage ditch that we’ve been clearing since noon. Downstream from me, where foul-smelling black water has slowly begun to trickle out as our efforts clear a path, was where the big pieces were. A tree trunk, two feet in diameter at its base, 25 feet long, and with a 4-foot diameter root ball, lays pushed up against the main rubble pile from where we used pry bars and our backs to get the water-soaked log out of the 3-foot deep ditch and across the roadway. Beside it lay steel beams that took 10 people to even roll, and on top and around all of it lay the remains of a town.
That’s really the only way I can describe it; the remains of a town. There are shattered windows and mounds of rotting carpets or futons mixed with roof tiles. Broken shards of glass and pottery are everywhere, scattered from the kitchens and dining rooms of homes that no longer exist. A bag of potato chips, somehow untorn, lies in the mud with the chips still intact inside. Picking it up, I wipe away enough to see that the expiration date is November 13, 2011. Nearby is a bright orange squirt gun. A bit further away lays a Playstation, broken in half. I find adult’s clothes, children’s clothes, photo albums, a microwave, a calendar from 2009, even a DVD of “Jackass, the Movie.” Car wreckage is at every turn, the car bodies almost comically jelly-bean shaped as every sharp corner has been rounded off from being tumbled in the tsunami like normal waves tumble pebbles on a beach. I find an old purse that had been used to store letters. It is full of them, somehow protected from the water. They are written in the thin wavering lines of an older woman and are all addressed to “Chisako”. The group leader says to just put it with the rest of the rubble. There are thousands of these, he says, and nobody to claim them.
It’s all here, but the houses and the people are not.
I’m overwhelmed by Minami Sanriku. I grew up in a town the size of this place, both geographically and in terms of population. When I try to think of the entire valley of my town destroyed and 10,000 people killed in the space of an hour, my mind goes blank and refuses. I can’t wrap my head around it, either intellectually or emotionally, so my brain just stops and it doesn’t start again until I think of something else. In the meantime, I just stand there and look at these piles of rubble the size of football fields, taking short, shallow breaths, almost hypnotized by the devastation of this place. There are no dead bodies around, but you know that many people died here simply because there is no way that many people could not have died.
In the morning our job had been to clear debris from a roadway higher up the mountains, just where the tsunami stopped. From there you could look down toward the ocean almost two miles away and more than 150 feet below.
An older local man with whom I spoke as we broke for lunch described how the first wave came in and he and his friends ran up a small steep embankment to escape. The wave stopped just short of where his car was parked, so as the water stopped rising he ran down and got in his car to drive it to higher ground. Before he could start the engine, however, he saw his friends yelling for him to get back up the incline. He left his car with the keys in the ignition and ran back to safety. Thirty seconds later the second wave hit, and at almost two miles of distance and 150 feet above sea level, but only ten feet below where he stood, he watched his car get swept away. Looking down towards the harbor, he said that all he could see was black, oily ocean where the town used to be. All of it was under water.
I look back at the ditch. Until today, nobody had touched it since the earthquake, and it is filled with the kind of putrid, black, sucking muck that only gets created by water, heat, and human garbage. When we first arrived at this site, we all started at the far end before working our way to where most of us are now.
Initially you couldn’t see the water – just a floating mass of debris and garbage. Using shovels, pitchforks, pry bars, and our hands, we had pulled an amazing amount of material out of the ditch, exposing a dark black water with scattered islands of yellow-gray foam. Compared to the morning, it was harder, hotter, dirtier work. One lady cut her lower leg on some aluminum siding that pushed up her boots, taking her pantleg with it until it got to skin. Another volunteer had glass go through their glove, cutting their hand. Another got stuck in the arm by some rusty wire poking out of what was probably the interior plaster wall of a house. People came close to heatstroke. People were made ill by the fumes coming out of the mud. But they cleaned up, cooled down, walked it off, and kept working.
I had noticed some older people in our group when we all boarded the bus in Tokyo the previous night and had wondered how they would do. I shouldn’t have. I worked for several hours with two of the older ladies and found them to be tireless and amazingly strong. When we were moving the heaviest things, they were always there to help. Just now, after a full day of hard work and in 90-degree heat, I had been struggling to pull a large carpet from the mud and up out of the ditch. One of these ladies came over, and without saying a word helped me pull this heavy, sodden, stinking mess over to the main pile. When we finished, before I could even catch my breath, she said “Thank you” to me and walked back to get another load. I asked her later, and this was her third time volunteering.
Another 30 minutes on, our leader calls it a day. We load up the tools into the wheelbarrows and walk the half mile back up the mountain to where they are stored and where our bus waits. On the way, I talk with him about the work. One of the questions I ask is about the number of cars missing wheels that I’ve seen. He stops, points out an SUV nearby, and says “Look, they left the spare bolted to the rear door. Do you know why? They didn’t have a key for the lock. Most of these wheels are gone from theft. Saltwater doesn’t hurt the expensive alloy wheels, so they were the first to go. Now we see it on more cars. Not everyone here is good, but some of them probably just need the money.” He turns a little bit away and looks out over the harbor. “Most of us are good, but not all of us.”
It takes us about an hour to get everything – and ourselves – cleaned up enough to put away and board the bus for the three hours it will take to get to a hotel with electricity and running water. Ten minutes later we are bouncing over the cracks and waves of what used to be a flat and modern highway. Ten minutes after that, the only sound on the bus is snoring. Tomorrow we’ll go back and get assigned another job. There’s a lot of work to do.