Casualty statistics can give a misleading impression of the havoc inflicted by natural disasters. For instance, the most recent updates for the magnitude-6.5 and 7.3 earthquakes that hit Kumamoto and Oita prefectures on April 14 and 16 give casualty figures of 49 killed and more than 2,000 injured. It may be tempting to add “only.”
But as I discovered when I arrived in Mashiki town near Kumamoto city with volunteers from It’s Not Just Mud and IDRO Japan (International Disaster Relief Organization Japan) on April 20, such statistics tell only part of the story. They say little about the lives upended as thousands of homes were destroyed, or other homes rendered temporarily uninhabitable by disconnected utilities, overturned furniture, trashed possessions and rotting food. They are silent on the stress of coping with continued aftershocks, and the discomforts of being reduced to living in evacuation shelters or cars. This all became apparent to us as we commenced work in the most heavily damaged parts of the town near the Mashiki Cultural Center.
Some have wondered whether there are too many volunteers in Kumamoto. The truth is, as many volunteers are needed as can help the many homeowners who want possessions recovered from destroyed homes, or who need trash and heavy broken appliances pulled out of their otherwise intact dwellings so they can become inhabitable again. The problem is how to accommodate volunteers in limited space with limited resources, and how to coordinate their activities to the best effect.
The volunteer work we’ve done involves cleaning up the insides of lightly damaged homes and businesses, and recovering items such as photo albums, ihai (mortuary tablets), inkan (personal seals), clothing and other possessions from destroyed buildings. This requires difficult decisions from homeowners and families. Once, I was clambering with another volunteer on a collapsed second floor wall following a homeowner’s directions, reaching into a gap beneath a fallen roof to extract photo albums. Her adult daughter waiting below suddenly burst into tears and scolded her mother, saying, “Enough! They’re just memories, Mum, it’s not worth it!”
This work can be dangerous. However, the foreign and Japanese volunteer groups that began setting up camp in a car park near Mashiki Cultural Center on April 20 have many years of disaster relief work experience between them. IDRO Japan and It’s Not Just Mud leaders Robert Mangold and Jamie El Banna, and some Japanese firefighter volunteers we worked with, are expert at cutting their way into collapsed buildings or climbing over them to locate owners’ possessions. The Japanese NPOs brought excavator machines with them to remove sections of roof and collapsed wall to facilitate volunteer access.
But is it worth taking risks to retrieve mere possessions? For people who have lost almost everything, inkan, photo albums, bank books, clothing and prized heirlooms are the last remaining anchors to a continued identity and dignity in lives literally overturned by disaster. Watching an elderly man thumb through an old album retrieved from deep within a ruined house and explain the photos to us, I knew it was worth it.
No disaster story is complete without a prime ministerial visit. On April 21, Shinzo Abe came to Mashiki. There were only grubby foreign volunteers present when the PM and his entourage entered the car-park camp to greet everyone.
Without thinking, I doffed my helmet as he approached.
“Where are you from?” he asked as he shook my hand.
“Umm … Fukuoka?” I answered uncertainly.
“Thank you for coming,” he replied, as his minders looked on, bemused. I was glad for his sake that I’d washed my hands earlier that morning.