Japan’s People Power: Residents Help Each Other in Quake’s Aftermath

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Tomeo Suguwara leans into the hill, carrying a large, empty straw basket. Behind him, a few houses are left where a neighborhood used to be. For the third day in a row, the farmer has been feeding a calf he found wandering around the detritus of people’s kitchens and bedrooms after the tsunami swept through this village in Kesennuma. He doesn’t know whose animal it is, and when asked why he’s been feeding it, he assumes the expression of someone politely answering an obvious question: “Because it’s alive.”

In Miyagi prefecture, one of areas hit hardest by Friday’s tsunami on Japan’s east coast, information and help are still scarce. On Route 45, an ocean-bound road that goes to Kesennuma City, a man flags down passing cars, telling them to drive up a hill after a tsunami warning has gone up. On most days, he’s a chef in the city’s school lunch program, but today’s he’s a disaster coordinator.  “There’s a lot of confusion. We don’t really get much information,” says Ken Sato, who lives in the area. There are about 70,000 people living in greater Kesennuma, all of whom are reportedly still without water, electricity, or phone lines. The only way that people here are getting information about the disaster they are very much a part of is by television, or if somebody arrives with the news. “The only way we can contact people is by driving to their houses ourselves,” Sato says.

So that’s exactly what he and many more people up and down the east coast of Japan are doing. Though the government has deployed some 100,000 troops to the quake and tsunami struck regions of Honshu island, help has been slow to arrive to pockets like this one, north of the city of Sendai. People have been riding bikes between villages to look for friends and pass word around of what’s happening. “We were at an evacuation center and somebody said they had heard about a tsunami in Oshima, which is nearby,” says Sato. Based on that information – and without waiting for an official alert – volunteer firefighters told Sato to direct cars on the road to higher ground.

On the road, a convoy from a Special Defense Force regiment from the inland city of Yamagata made its way toward the wrecked coast. Later that day, its members embarked on a search and rescue mission in an area of Kesennuma inaccessible by car. As the soldiers walked down a road blocked by collapsed buildings, Ryoko Sagawara bowed when they passed her home. “This is the first time rescue workers has come,” Sagawara says. After the tsunami struck, she walked three hours home from her job at a Styrofoam factory to find the first floor of her house had been submerged. She still hasn’t made contact with her 25-year-old son.  When asked if the government is doing enough here, she answers indirectly: “There are a lot of people who have lost their houses,” she says.

Many of those who have are staying at an evacuation center nearby. Inside the gymnasium of Koizuma Middle School, hundreds of residents sit in small groups, surrounded by bedrolls and blankets and the few belongings they’ve salvaged from their homes. A group of young girls, who are also students here, sit together in maroon gym class uniforms, their sneakers lined up on the floor in flimsy boxes they’ve folded out of newspaper. After their home was swept away in the waves, Rina and Kana Oikawa, who are twins, came here and waited for their mother to find them. “I was really, really worried,” says Kana. Rina hugs her, imitating what her sister did when their mother finally arrived the next day. “Obasan! Obason!” Rina says, laughing. Behind her surgical mask and glasses, Kana looks mildly embarrassed.

For the last three days, the center has been providing food and a warm place to hundreds of newly homeless people, staffed by a small, brisk force of city employees and volunteers. They load blue crates full of tofu, bread and vegetables from a city truck into the building, stocking up for the days to come. The government estimates that 350,000 people have been made homeless since the quake and tsunami struck. In this prefecture alone, police believe more than 10,000 people may have been killed.

Later nearby, at a crossroads of destroyed village, two men meet on the road, smiling at each other in front of spectacularly collapsed tile roof. One man, wearing tall rubber boots and carrying a rice sack in one hand, says, “Meeting people you know right now is the best thing in the world.”