Socks to Iwaki

Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture was badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. It’s located just 40 km (25 mi) south of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, so close that one percent of it was evacuated due to radiation concerns. Despite radiation in the area remaining within safe limits, perception of extreme danger has led to most shipping companies refusing to take supplies to the Iwaki area.

That’s why we were asked to supply socks and care letters to survivors in shelters around Iwaki. Government leaders there assured us that the radiation level was safe, and we confirmed that with our own research. The radiation level on Sunday was not dangerous even to people living in Iwaki. Thus, it was safe for us to venture into the area for a day trip.

The next challenge to overcome was gasoline. With lines at Sano gas stations requiring a three-hour wait, we knew the situation farther north would be even worse. Sure enough, the waits in Iwaki were half-a-day and longer. The distance of 200 km (125 mi) from Sano to Iwaki meant we would need to refuel somewhere for the return trip after driving around the area to deliver socks and letters. Luckily, our intrepid team of researchers found that Mito City on the way back maintained a decent supply of gasoline with limited wait times. Nothing was certain but the odds suggested we could get to Iwaki, deliver socks, then refuel at Mito halfway back to Sano.

Below is the map from Sano to Iwaki, with our base at the lower left. Notice that Iwaki is located far north of Kitaibaraki — where we went one week ago and described in this report — and thus closer to the power plant:

Map showing the route from Sano to Iwaki

The next map shows Iwaki’s proximity to the power plant:

Map showing proximity of Iwaki to Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Volunteer Rumiko agreed to accompany me. We packed 1,900 pairs of socks and care letters into our vehicle and departed Sano at 6:15 a.m. Sunday, March 27. We found the roads wide open again, confirming that our operation is not interfering with other relief efforts. The extremely long gas lines in Iwaki made us happy to have researched another option — and keep our fingers crossed that the gas situation in Mito was as reported.

Click on any of the photo grids that follow to see the entire gallery. Here’s our cargo, the highway, and one of Iwaki’s gas station lines:

Photos of the road to Iwaki

The damage done in Iwaki differed from what I’d witnessed in Kitaibaraki a week earlier. There, I saw neighborhoods devastated and family lives ruined. The drive through Iwaki revealed more industrial destruction. While Iwaki was damaged on a larger scale, it struck me less personally than had the damage in Kitaibaraki. It was dispiriting nonetheless:

Photos of damage in Iwaki

Authorities dispersed shelters all around the area, and many roads were blocked off due to damage. Others weren’t blocked but should have been. Several times, we needed to slow to a near stop and navigate around earthquake holes or sections of asphalt raised too high to drive over. Some dangerous areas were marked off with construction cones, but many were not. After nearly losing our suspension on one earthquake “speed bump,” we drove more cautiously the rest of the day. Here’s Rumiko asking for directions to survivor shelters while I manned the car:

Photos of getting directions in Iwaki

The shelters in Iwaki are much larger than the ones in Kitaibaraki. People in charge needed to check schedules to find the current location of various groups of survivors when we visited. They didn’t know survivors by name, either, as had been the case a week earlier. Supplies in Kitaibaraki had arrived in personal trucks from neighbors. In Iwaki, military convoys trucked crates of goods to shelters and a literal army of workers carried and stacked them.

We worried that our humble contribution would be a waste of time, that socks and letters had long ago arrived in quantity. Once again, however, our research came through. It showed us before we began that socks get lost in the shuffle, need to be replenished after primary support arrives, and bring comfort. True! Socks and underwear are still in demand, and many people said throughout the day that letters of cheer are vital. The military and government are good at setting up food lines and handing out standard-issue blankets; not so good at packaging high-quality socks by hand and putting love on a piece of paper. The heart matters, we believed when we started this effort, and it’s been amply confirmed by every trip to shelters, even the large, well-stocked ones. In Iwaki, the size of some shelters is overwhelming:

Photos of big shelters in Iwaki

We’ve learned that the best way to make a cheerful impact is to announce loudly and excitedly, “Hello, everybody! We’re volunteers representing people from around the world, who’ve sent socks and care letters for you! The whole world is on your side! You’re not alone! Come get fresh socks and letters from new friends!”

The survivors are on their feet in seconds, milling around our supplies, asking questions and talking quickly. “Who are these from?” “They know about this there?” “Really, somebody sent these for us?” “I think that’s what he just said.” The energy in the shelter reaches a high pitch quickly and stays there as people choose their socks and begin reading their letters, and comparing. Here we are at one of the larger shelters of the day, where a foreigner-owned coffee shop in Tokyo had set up a complimentary coffee operation that boosted spirits even more:

Photos of sock distribution in Iwaki

The smell of coffee and the familiar equipment provided me with a moment of comfort as I remembered my sister running our shop, Red Frog Coffee, in Longmont. I paused just a few seconds, but that’s all it took for me to see in my mind our shop and the view of snow-capped Mt. Meeker in the distance and Emily’s smile at the counter, and feel that better times exist. The owner of the Tokyo coffee shop saw the faraway look on my face, and came over. “You like coffee?” he asked in English. “A lot,” I said. “My sister and I own a shop in Colorado. I miss her.” He handed me a cup. “This is for you, my friend,” he said with one of the warmest smiles a man can make. Such moments in life are all there is to life.

A local woman named Yukiko boosted spirits among survivors. That looked to be her job. She told people to smile, said there would be no crying for their town, talked about the future, reminded people of all that Japan had accomplished in its past. She rounded up the elderly to make sure they read their comfort letters and tried on their socks, then ordered everybody to stand together for a picture of pride. “Show the world we’re down but not out!” she shouted. “Show them we feel their encouragement. Show them we won’t give up!” Here’s the photo, back-row arms raised in strength:

Photo of survivors in Iwaki showing they'll never give up

Driving to other shelters showed us more evidence that food and gas remain in very short supply inside the radiation zone. We’ve seen gas lines and empty shelves in Sano, but they look like just the result of a busy day compared with the vacuum in Iwaki. Look at this lonely convenience store, which should be bursting with goods:

Photo of empty shelves at a 7/11 in Iwaki Photo of empty shelves at a 7/11 in Iwaki

One of the saddest shelters we visited housed survivors in separate classrooms at an elementary school hidden in the mountains. Almost all of them were elderly, some injured and others ill, but all of them eager to tell us what had happened to them and how little help they’ve received. The able ones put their socks on right away. The care letters brought new light to their eyes, often followed by tears.

One man told me his home and the homes of his neighbors had been destroyed, and that their only option now was to live in public housing once enough becomes available. I asked if insurance would cover the cost of rebuilding his home. He said most people in the area don’t carry insurance to cover both earthquakes and tsunamis. “There’s been talk of government help, but so far just talk,” he said.

In the next room, a family sat talking quietly. When we asked if they’d like socks, the mother said, “Yes!” then to her sons, “Socks! New socks!” She read the letter right away, sitting on her futon in a red jacket and beaming through her mask.

A pregnant woman sat with her family in another room. I asked when she was due and she replied, “Any day now. Good timing, eh?” We gave socks to her and her family. She asked sheepishly, “I don’t suppose you’d have any socks for a newborn girl, would you?” With great joy, we replied that, in fact, we did have such socks and would bring them in. A few minutes later, she held up several pairs and said she’d always remember that her daughter’s first socks came from another country with letters of goodwill.

Some of the survivors were away from their futons when we visited, so we left pairs of socks for them to receive later, assured by everybody else that they would explain where they came from and how they were delivered. It felt good to realize they knew the packages were special and wanted to make sure their friends knew, too. Here are photos from that shelter:

Photos of the old and young of Iwaki

An 80-year-old woman named Kunio Mizuno asked us if she could have extra socks for other people absent when we visited. She said she read the letter in one of the pairs she received, and felt grateful. She became emotional, constantly wiping her eyes, and the emotion spread to Rumiko, too, until both of them stood comforting each other in the hallway. Mrs. Mizuno kept dropping pairs of socks on the ground and I kept picking them up to hand to her again, apologizing for not having a small bag for her.

She told us she was touched by the message with her pair of socks. She worried about her family’s future because her husband is 70 years old, she is 80, and the floor of their home was ruined by the tsunami. “We can’t stay in this school forever,” she said, “but there’s no way for us to get money and rebuild anything outside of here.” Her son is a carpenter, so we suggested maybe he’d find work in the rebuilding to come. There’s no way of knowing, though, and it was hardly the time to discuss anything in depth.

Rumiko told Mrs. Mizuno she was sorry she couldn’t do anything for her and her husband. Mrs. Mizuno replied that we did do something great for her just by showing up to care. “It’s more than the government has done. More than the town has done.” She asked us to pass along to everybody who sent socks and letters her deepest thanks, “from my heart,” she emphasized with hands across her chest. Here she is explaining to Rumiko how the tsunami destroyed the floor of her home:

Photo of Rumiko listening to Mrs Mizuno

There were so many places to go, but we ran low on gasoline and had to prioritize where to spend our last handful of kilometers in town. We ranked by number of people and distance, and stopped at a shelter caring for mostly young families. The children there became eager to try their English, then laughed when we responded just as we knew their textbooks told them we would. They learned some new sock vocabulary that day, and also other phrases from the translated letters they received with their socks. One of their fathers changed into his new pair of socks right away, saying as others had, “Finally!” Here’s that shelter:

Photos of a young family shelter in Iwaki

We felt terrible leaving town in daylight, with only 1,114 pairs of socks distributed. We accomplished less than we’d hoped, gone to fewer places than we’d planned, and the sights on our way back to the highway reminded us that much work lay ahead:

Photos of tossed cars in Iwaki

We found the gasoline situation in Mito to be exactly as reported. We exited, filled up, and got back on the road home in about 20 minutes. The gasoline situation continues improving, so we believe we’ll be able to reach more people in the days ahead. Would you like to join us? It’s not too late to boost the spirits of a survivor who lost friends and family, and whose neighborhood now looks like this:

Photo of a destroyed neighborhood in Iwaki

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23 Comments

  1. Ŋiηjα‾}{}{‾TURTLE4
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey man,thank you for visting my city and making people happy :)I live in Yotskra,Iwaki and am a 16 year old guy. I was using my computer after I left junior high school, when that stupid earthquake hit. That earthquake attacked me with little power at first but after few seconds the power intensified and I ran out of my home and saw my home and asphalt were moving!! :( I didn’t know asphalt could move before that. I can’t forget those things.

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