Drowning Hearts at Lady River

Last Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, we distributed 10,448 pairs of socks to survivors in Ishinomaki and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture. Here’s the route map from our base in Sano using the Tohoku Expressway, a distance of 349 km (217 mi):

In a sign that ours is a blessed effort, we found a family that owns a large 4WD van that they rarely use. They agreed to rent it to us at a reasonable price for one month. With our new van, we can transport up to 6,000 pairs of socks at a time. Its 4WD capability and high clearance make it perfect for taking us deep into damaged areas where the need is greatest. Here’s the van prior to its first distribution trip:

I write that this is a blessed effort because we received the van just before a trip that required its sturdy off-road capabilities, as you’ll see in photos below. The vehicles we used prior to this van would have been unable to make it to a few of the shelters that needed us on this trip. There’s something magical going on. We felt it when looking over the van’s dash at city streets turned to muddy rivers, knowing that we could press on thanks only to the capabilities offered by this van that arrived in the nick of time.

What’s more, the van seemed eager to help. The family that owns it keeps it shined up for trips to the mall or movie theater, never really putting it through its off-road paces. Fully loaded with socks and volunteers, facing tsunami mud and earthquake damage, the van’s roaring engine declared, “This is what I was made to do. Let’s hit it!” Hit it we did, down pathways like these:

As with other shelters we’ve seen, some in Ishinomaki overflowed with donated used clothing in piles — but no socks. Look at the unclaimed clothes at the first shelter, yet how eagerly survivors gathered to receive socks and letters from us:

Inside massive shelters:

touching personal moments abound:

After distributing Thursday night, we parked the van in a lot beside the city’s Red Cross hospital. There were few cars there so we had no trouble finding a place. At 11:33 pm, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck hard, shaking us awake. The van shuddered and bounced, and other cars around us joined as if live music had dragged them all onto a dance floor. The volunteer with me, Asuka, cried out at the too-familiar sound of shaking earth and sirens in the distance. When at last it stopped, loudspeakers warned of another tsunami. “Not again,” we thought, and shuddered in a different way to recall that we’d driven near the coast less than an hour earlier. The roads filled with volunteer cars racing to the hospital to help with another potential onslaught of victims. The parking lot went from empty to full before our eyes. We made our way inside the hospital and found the following scenes, snapped quickly with Asuka’s mobile phone camera.

Doctors, nurses, and volunteers assembled a high-volume trauma center in about ten minutes:

then stood ready to receive victims, who arrived by ambulance:

Despite the thorough preparations, we didn’t expect to see many victims that night for the grim reason that most people who could be killed or injured by a tsunami were already dead or receiving treatment. Areas within the tsunami zone were wiped out on March 11 — there’s simply not much left to be destroyed by another tsunami. The one that followed last Thursday’s quake was small, anyway. Those two factors together made for a relatively slow night at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital, for which everybody was grateful.

However, the earthquake destroyed power and water service to parts of town, again, and some survivor shelters needed people to leave. We found that out the next morning at our first shelter stop, where the director explained the situation to us.

She suggested that because so many survivors were living on the streets and in ruined houses, we should park our van in front of a natural gathering area and put up hand-made signs announcing socks for distribution. We used cardboard and markers from the shelter to make signs, then parked the van in front of an abandoned train station where military trucks pull in with supplies.

People streamed from the nearby “neighborhood,” which was actually a collection of lumber and crumpled metal in chaotic piles behind a few standing buildings, to line up politely for socks and letters.

We had to limit the quantity to two pairs of socks per person, but even so we gave away hundreds of pairs at that one stop.

This man and his bird showed us why he needed socks:

When we’d worked our way through about half the crowd, a quiet boy with scratches and cuts on his face pushed to the front. He tapped my arm and asked, “Is it OK if I just sit next to your van? I won’t make any trouble. I just want to sit next to it.” I said sure. He pulled over an orange crate and sat with his head bowed, with no further explanation. We kept distributing socks to the crowd until everybody was gone.

Still the boy sat. “Would you like some socks?” I asked. He said yes, and took two plain white pairs from the bag I held open to him, a most humble choice. “How about more for your family?” I offered. He shook his head and began to cry, and I guessed at the reason he didn’t need more socks. I tried talking to him but he didn’t want to talk. He said I could take a picture of him, but not of his face. I never found out what happened to his family or why he wanted to sit by the van. Maybe his father once had a similar van. Maybe his mother used to drive him and his siblings around town in a similar van. We’ll never know. Eventually we needed to leave, and all I have left of that boy is my memory of his quavering voice and the photo he allowed me to take.

The day continued. We drove around town looking for groups of people receiving supplies from the military or another source, then parked nearby and put up our signs.

We heard from people that as damaged as their town of Ishinomaki was, the nearby town of Onagawa was far worse. One woman told us, “My home town is Onagawa. Now I have no hometown.” We needed to get there. On the way, we passed by the bay where the tsunami had originated in Ishinomaki.

There, we met the Honda family, whose business is harvesting and packaging seaweed in paper-like sheets that are wrapped around rice balls and other Japanese foods. The insides of homes in the area are gutted. Mrs. Honda told us how her family’s many years of living beside the sea had conditioned them to expect tidal waves after earthquakes, so they immediately fled to higher ground with their most precious belongings.

Mr. Honda, however, made a quick decision to save the most expensive boat from his fleet. He ran back down the hill and jumped aboard to outrun the tsunami to an inner part of the bay where he’d noticed little damage in previous tidal waves.

He explained in riveting detail how the tsunami arose behind him as he drove full throttle away from it toward the safety of the inner bay. It caught up to him, but his angle and speed enabled him to surf the front of it “at a speed faster than our big boat has ever gone” until he could steer away to the protection of an inlet, where the boat was tossed violently but left mostly undamaged. Every other boat in the Honda fleet, along with the family’s home and cars, was destroyed. All boats owned by neighbors were destroyed as well. Mr. Honda’s prized boat survived, though, thanks to his quick action and knowledge of the area. Here he is telling his story:

and here’s what became of the boats that didn’t get away:

At the end of our conversation, Mr. and Mrs. Honda accepted socks from us and gave us seaweed in return. They wished us well on our journey to Onagawa, but added, “There’s nothing left there, you know.” Here they are with Asuka in front of their damaged home:

From there, our quest entered a new level of intensity. We’d heard enough about the damage at Onagawa to expect a terrible sight, but we could not have predicted the extent of the decimation. It came as a shock to me that seawater gone angry enough inflicts as much damage as the firebombing of Dresden or the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Onagawa, which means “Lady River” when translated literally, looks today the way Dresden and Hiroshima looked after their calamities.

Because Onagawa is situated in a valley beside the sea, it was especially vulnerable to the large tidal wave. The wave surged from the ocean and, with nowhere to disperse, climbed the valley walls to form a giant pot of ferocious seawater that swirled mercilessly until draining away to leave almost nothing intact or alive.

The following photos are in order of our entry into the seaside village, so you experience in seeing them the same growing sense of sadness we felt driving into the suffering of poor Lady River.

People still look for friends, family, and belongings.

We continued deeper into the valley.

The water reached as high as the hospital at the upper left of the following photo, where you see a white car lodged against the building:

We drove up to the hospital to look over the damage in the valley. It’s even more heartbreaking from the higher vantage point.

We knew that we did not have enough socks left to handle such a town. We decided to take our remaining inventory back to Ishinomaki where we would distribute it at shelters, then return to shelters in Onagawa on another day as quickly as possible.

Our way out of town needed a different road because soldiers found bodies on the one we’d used to enter, and closed it to collect and remove them. They don’t euphemize anymore. They say directly, “You can’t use this road now. We found bodies on it and we’re not done removing them yet. Drive that way, please.” We did so, and discovered a different perspective on the extirpation.

Soldiers still searched for bodies.

We drove back to our base in Sano late Friday night, vowing to return quickly and with more help. The volunteer team at our base worked double-time on Saturday to prepare another shipment for Sunday. No other adult volunteers were able to join us for the return trip, so Asuka’s 10-year-old daughter Siena agreed to help. I asked if she was scared. She said she was, but that she’d heard all of our stories and wanted to help. With more than 5,000 pairs of socks loaded, the three of us departed Sano at 5 am Sunday for Ishinomaki and Onagawa.

We used the van as a distribution point at a shelter:

on the street:

and at a military tent:

In the afternoon, we drove our inventory carefully marked for Onagawa over the saddest road on Earth back into the seaside valley. We needed to take the high road again; they still pulled bodies from the lower. We saw the hospital across the way:

and soldiers working high up in the valley:

We drove past the hospital to where our map showed the town’s primary shelter to be. With most roads destroyed and landmarks gone, it’s hard to find the way around Onagawa these days. Directional advice goes like this: “Drive past the piles of rubble, turn left at the three crushed cars, go quickly under the collapsing bridge, and you’ll see across the flattened roofs a wrecked fence. It’s on the other side of that.” We became lost, until we found a Mrs. Kimitsuka picking through the remains of her mother’s home. We spoke with her and found out her mother was staying at the very shelter we sought. She offered to take us there, as she was going to visit anyway.

On our way out, Mrs. Kimitsuka told us her mother had barely escaped the tsunami by running up the nearby mountainside. Later, she and her mother returned to the wreckage and could not believe their luck to find among it the one insurance document they needed. Not all of the neighbors survived, she was sad to report. The couple living at the house shown below tripped and fell, and were consumed by the wave.

The shelter was perched on a hill between the main valley and a back valley. From the shelter, we could see down into the back valley. The survivors in the shelter were a rough bunch, striving to retain good spirits but not always succeeding. We felt among them the strains of mental anguish arising from having lived in a survivor shelter for one month, homes gone, people gone, and as one woman put it, “future gone.” They needed socks badly, and lined up for an allotted two pairs per person, a ration we hate to enforce when looking into pained eyes. I admit to not always enforcing it.

There were happy moments such as meeting some of the local children who survived, and Mrs. Kimitsuka’s mother.

Happiness is the exception in Onagawa, however, not the rule. A shy 15-year-old girl named Akane Hanzawa told us she’d been in school when the earthquake struck. She and her classmates heard the tsunami crashing through the buildings of town, spraying up from them as it went, knocking some over and submerging others. It reached their school quickly. Many students fled up a mountainside. Akane survived that way.

“My friend, Miki, ran with me and stood beside me on the mountain,” she said. “We looked at the whole town as a lake. The school was gone. The wave still crashed its way up the valley, though. Suddenly, Miki grabbed my arm and said she needed to check on her grandmother. ‘No!,’ I told her, but she wouldn’t listen. She ran down the mountain and up the valley toward her grandmother’s house. Nobody’s seen Miki or her grandmother again.”

A tough older man who’d made his living by the strength of his body, which showed up in broad shoulders and a handshake as firm as any American farmer’s, stood silently when he reached the front of the line.

“How many men?” I asked him. Some people receive socks for absent members of their family.

“Just one. Just me.”

I handed him two thick pairs of socks, and told him they looked warm and comfortable. He nodded. “And how many women?” I asked.

His free hand shot over his eyes. He sobbed, “None. They’re gone.” He dropped to his knees, wracked with grief, letting go what had built up inside him after probably many other releases along the way. An understanding line of people waited silently, knowingly behind him. Nobody complained. Nobody checked a watch. The room went still as a strong man’s sobs reverberated among us.

“After the quake,” he said, “we went around the house picking things up. We heard another crashing sound and saw the wave smashing through buildings toward our house, exploding off of them like the ocean does along a coastline. It struck our house before we could run. It washed me up onto the mountain where other people were thrown, too. I couldn’t find my wife. When the water drained away, I went back to our house and found her body in the kitchen. . . . She never got out of the kitchen . . . where she cooked for us . . . many wonderful meals she cooked for us.”

The room waited. The line had become a series of bowed heads as faces looked down at the hands clasped in front of them. The man continued.

“I held her body a long time. I wanted something of her to keep with me always. I pulled her wedding ring from her finger and tried putting it on my little finger, but my finger was too big. I cut the band and stretched it to fit and pinched it back together as close as I could on the back side.” He held up his hand. “I wear my ring on this finger, and my wife’s ring on my little finger, and that’s how it’s going to be until I see her again. I kind of hope it’s not long, to be honest.” He looked around. “I don’t see much point in all this. Not without her. . . . I’m so lonely. . . . Thanks for the socks.”

Akane’s school, Miki’s grandmother’s home, and the ring man’s house once coexisted in the same back valley. We left the shelter in a waning light to pay our respects in the back valley, where the tsunami found them all, where it drowned so many, where its stench and despoliation still clutch at every fragile living thing that dares enter. The whole valley stinks of dead fish and old harbor, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s all. The piles of rubble are deep, and thousands of people remain unfound.

It’s not a place to linger after dark. We left the dank, smelly air behind and drove out of Onagawa for the long ride back to Sano.

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  1. Lorna Shashinda
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for what you are doing. Part of your mission is distributing socks, and through them, hope and caring. The other part of what you are doing is making sure that people around the world know the stories of these individuals, so that they are not forgotten.

  2. Posted November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I have been avoiding to read your accounts of the disaster because I knew it would hurt me so much. Finally sifted through your articles and this one made me cry the most. It seems so selfish of me to be crying actually, when the Japanese are all holding up a brave front. There are lots to learn and empathy is something rather difficult to manage effectively. Thank you so much for persevering down this road with the socks and allowing me to lend a hand. Hope to meet you in person at some point Jason, it has been inspiring working with you albeit in a small way. Will make plans to come to Japan soon as it has always held a special place in my heart. Also want to express gratitude that without your brilliant writing skills, the world will not benefit from the learning while we follow yours and the team’s journey through the disastrous rubble.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Poesy, for your help in getting the word out and your kindness. We’ll welcome you to Japan anytime. Let me know the moment your plans firm up.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        At this point I do not have any firm plans, but the Bald Empathy Movement needs to involve Japan in the final stages. The plan is to get the my ‘sacrificed hair’ stitched into a wig by the Japanese, before I present it to the young girl who is suffering from hairloss due to disease. The 4 months tour has left me very drained and I am back at work for the time being. Aiming to follow up with Japan either in 2012 or 2013, and when I do, I definitely want to connect/get further involved with SFJ if I can still add value then.

        Originally – I was scheduled to come in February 2011, before going to West Africa and Europe, but I could not get my Japanese translation for the media done in time – somehow stars were not aligned with my then-volunteer. When the tsunami happened, I was out in Hamburg and was devastated to see the news on Japan. I felt that in this movement of empathy, we (Helping Angels) needed to lend any help we could afford as a global network who cares, albeit merely a small FB group of only 200o international members.

        Now with the current state of affairs, I find it even more important to involve Japan in the grand finale of Bald Empathy Movement, hope the stars will eventually be aligned for it. I understand that there are far more pressing issues to take care of before I ask priority be given to the art project to raise empathy.

        Meantime, keep up the great work. I am trailing your news not far away.

  3. Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    please… find the boy… please…

  4. Jordon
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    This article has opened my eyes. I am 14 years old and have a deep love for Japan. I will help Japan in anyway I can. For my birthday, and for christmas, I want socks to send to Japan.

    • Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Good for you, Jordon. The time for fresh socks to survivors of this disaster has passed, but good people will always find a way to help in the world. You’re such a person! Do good things.

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