Volunteers still in great need but tapering off

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Sticking by a friend’s side when times get rough is what proves one’s worth as a volunteer worker — and Fukushima Prefecture will need such help for a long time in a variety of ways, says Yasuo Seki, an official at the Fukushima Prefecture Disaster Volunteer Center.

According to Seki, who supervises volunteer centers in Fukushima, more than 62,000 people have given their time in the prefecture since the March 11 quake and tsunami. But the numbers have seen a substantial drop following the end of Golden Week.

“There were plenty of volunteers during the holidays — some who came from as far away as Kagoshima Prefecture. They joined us in removing rubble from local homes and streets,” Seki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The volunteer center prepared daily bus rides for such helpers during Golden Week, taking 40 each to the coastal cities of Iwaki and Shinchi.

The volunteers, whose ages ranged from their 20s to 50s, were able to lend a hand when it was needed most. The timing coincided with the end of the traditional Buddhist mourning period of 49 days. Locals were finally beginning to move on from their losses.

Some days there were more than 2,000 volunteers in the prefecture helping victims rebuild their lives.

But the number of volunteers dropped sharply in late May, with a mere 278 working in the entire prefecture on May 23, according to statistics provided by the disaster center.

The center said finding enough volunteers to fill the buses that still head out to the coast on weekends has been difficult.

With a wide area of Fukushima designated as a no-go zone due to the nuclear crisis, and only five volunteer centers in operation along the prefecture’s coast, Seki said it is understandable that volunteers from outside the prefecture are staying away.

“Many opt to work in Iwate or Miyagi prefectures under such circumstances,” he said.

But from this point forward, Fukushima will need volunteers not just for grunt work but also to provide other types of assistance for locals.

The disaster volunteer center predicts that removing rubble and cleaning up streets, or what they call “disaster volunteering,” will come to an end by late June or early July.

The focus of efforts will move on to supporting locals in other ways, including helping those living in temporary housing.

“Many people, including elders, will restart their lives far away from home,” Seki said. “They will need all the help they can get to settle in.”

As for people coming from overseas, visiting Fukushima and enjoying what the prefecture has to offer is one way to support the locals, he said.

“Soon it will be a great season to taste Fukushima’s famous fruits. It would be great if foreigners could come visit the area and show their support by helping revive the economy.”