October In The Disaster Zone

Socks for Japan embarked on two distributions to the disaster zone in October, one to Ishinomaki on Saturday, October 8 and the other to Onagawa and Ishinomaki on Monday, October 17.

While work crews have cleaned up the area dramatically, it is still a disaster zone. Living among the rubble is hard for people. They walk or ride bicycles or drive recently-purchased used cars past wreckage that reminds them of friends lost and businesses washed away. While earlier trips required us to pack food and water because we couldn’t buy them inside the zone, we’re now able to stop at functioning convenience stores and gas stations. The inventory isn’t yet the same as it is in undamaged parts of the country, but a semblance of normalcy is creeping back in. Creeping is the operative word, though, as scenes of damage still dominate the landscape.

Tattered interior at Ishinomaki

Fish on the floor in Ishinomaki

Piles of rubble remain everywhere.

Rubble pile in Ishinomaki

Cheap used cars present themselves in many places, usually in clearings where buildings once stood or in unused parking lots near lost businesses.

Used cars in Ishinomaki

Neighborhoods still slump in shambles, and sometimes the saddest wrecked homes to see are the new ones that were barely completed when the tsunami slammed ashore. “If only we’d waited a month,” the owners must be thinking, if they’re lucky enough to be alive to think it.

Sinking house in Ishinomaki

Tattered home in Ishinomaki

Ruined new house in Ishinomaki

Into the city’s labyrinth of temporary housing neighborhoods, volunteer Rumiko and I drove a regular passenger car loaded with 2,200 pairs of socks and care letters. The days of our 10,000-pair, four-person distribution trips in the HiAce van are behind us — and that’s good. The urgency of Phase One is gone. The need, however, is not.

In some temp neighborhoods, the residential manager helps us announce either over a speaker system or door-to-door that “Socks for Japan is here with warm socks for winter, and care letters, too!” Here’s one manager getting the word out:

Calling to temp housing survivors in Ishinomaki

People are grateful for socks now that nights grow cold. Many told us so, and asked if they could take extra pairs for friends or relatives who were out during the day or unable to leave their homes. We always allow that. Sometimes, we go door-to-door to deliver if there are enough people who can’t walk to our car, or if we learn of a specific person who would like a visit.

Ishinomaki temp housing

Temp housing survivors and Rumiko in Ishinomaki

Rumiko with survivors in Ishinomaki

Thousands of donors know Makiko Oku from our care letter creation page, where she and a team of other bilingual volunteers translated letters from English to Japanese. Makiko did so from her home in New Jersey while completing her Ph.D. I invited her to join us for distributions in Phase I, but she was unable to make the trip then due to her school schedule. Now that she attained her Ph.D., Makiko and her fiance Adam visited Sano and joined me for the October 17 distribution to Onagawa and Ishinomaki.

It was wonderful to finally meet them in person. Makiko and I exchanged countless emails during Phase I, and her team of donors in New Jersey and New York sent thousands of pairs of socks and letters. We also spoke on the phone. By the time I picked her and Adam up at the Sano Bus Terminal, she felt like an old friend. Adam and I hit it off right away, sharing a similar sense of humor, one I don’t find often in Japan. Thus happy together from the get-go, the three of us set off before dawn the day after they arrived in Sano.

While I have grown as used to the scenes of destruction as a person can reasonbly become, it was Adam and Makiko’s first exposure. I recognized the emotions that crossed their faces, particularly Makiko’s as she finally witnessed firsthand the destruction she’d monitored so carefully from abroad. It’s one thing to read about it and watch news clips of it; quite another to walk into it. Back in her mother country for the first time in five years, Makiko experienced a tsunami of emotion from within the devastation wrought by the tsunami of seawater seven months earlier.

Makiko in downtown Onagawa

Makiko in Onagawa Valley rubble

Wrecked house near Ishinomaki coast

Makiko shooting Ishinomaki wreckage

Makiko and Adam at Onagawa clean-up

Both Adam and Makiko learned quickly the art of distributing socks to a crowd. It’s not complicated, but details matter. For example, asking just “How many people?” will result in a confusing list of names as the person runs through their mental list. Asking more specifically, “How many men?” and then “How many women?” and then “Any children?” results in a more efficient order. When a person says, “Oh, and I also have a daughter” it’s important to ask how old she is. She might be 16, in which case she probably needs socks for women, not socks for girls. Getting many such details right results in a smooth distribution — and Adam and Makiko got them right.

Adam and Makiko with Onagawa survivors

Onagawa temp housing survivor

Survivors in Ishinomaki temp housing

Makiko distributing from back of car

They took time to talk with survivors:

Adam and Makiko talking to a survivor in Ishinomaki

Makiko chanced upon one of her own donations, and personally handed the socks and letter she prepared back in New Jersey to a survivor in Onagawa:

Makiko hands out her own donation

They even took care of the Ishinomaki cable guys!

Ishinomaki cable guys getting socks

In the course of the day, we saw several landmarks that hold special meaning to longtime followers of Socks for Japan. Remember Mrs. Takahashi’s Inn in Onagawa? It’s completely cleared away now, and its building site looks like this:

Mrs. Takahashi's inn site after clean-up

The nearby area is cleared as well:

Onagawa clean-up near Mrs. Takahashi's inn

Mrs. Takahashi’s once-busy shelter is now quiet, as most survivors have moved to temporary housing or in with relatives:

Lonely shelter in Onagawa

I took Adam and Makiko through Ishinomaki’s worst-hit coastal path, which longtime readers have seen in many reports, including Warzone Japan 2011. One building stood alone and tall. Some called it “the standing shell,” others “the ghost house,” and everybody knew what you meant if you just said “that place” without further explanation. Here’s how it looked in April:

Ishinomaki standing shell

Here’s how it looks now:

Ghost house in Ishinomaki with new road

Notice the new road in front, and lack of debris all around. This says everything about the current state of affairs. Better? Yes, but so much work still lies ahead.

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18 Comments

  1. Karen
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much, Mo in Phoenix, for forwarding this to me; I will forward it to others who I know remain concerned for the people of that area. Special thanks to all of the workers. What can we here in the USA do to help? If we are unable to go to that area to physically assist are there addresses we can send donations of socks, or whatever is needed? God bless you all and the strong people of Japan.

    • Posted November 22, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Glad to have you, Karen! You’re more than welcome to send socks and care letters to the address shown at our main page, which also includes directions. Thank you!

  2. Karen
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    How appropriate to receive this the week our nation celebrates Thanksgiving. We can stop fretting and complaining and be truly thankful for our blessings, including that our nation has not seen such destruction as the nation of Japan struggles to recover from. The will and strength of these people never ceases to amaze me. They are truly blessed to have Jason and his team.

    • Posted November 22, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      The outpouring of love, admiration, and help for Japan has been moving. The nation’s warm character and polite ways have obviously touched the world. They touched me enough to make Japan my home for nearly a decade now. I’m so happy that Japan exists. There’s no other country like it.

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