Monday, April 11, 2011

25 hours to Kesennuma

Written by Rob Keyworth, Foreign Volunteers Japan

(* Photos to be added shortly)

Apologies if none of this makes much sense but I've not had much sleep

As you probably know, Dave and I went up to Kesennuma yesterday to deliver some supplies to the people who need it. This is a match report of the 25 hours that covered the 1100 km round trip and a bit of background thrown in.

Dave and I decided earlier this week that we would take some stuff to the people who have been most affected by the Tohoku Tsunami and Earthquake and decided that Kesennuma would be the best destination.

I'd seen the footage on the Telegraph of the 7 minutes where the tsunami destroyed the town but also I discovered that they had 13,000 people in shelters and there was one main distribution centre. This was key for me because my Japanese is appalling and I thought it was important that we could do some good without creating any issues and if we were driving from shelter to shelter with only one Japanese speaker it could create issues. And it was also not fair on Dave to have to deal with that side of things completely on his own so we decided we'd do a big drop to one area and they would then be able to allocate the resources that we were able to deliver.



I got in touch with Damian and he put me in touch with Lindsay who was volunteering to help people in anyway she could. She was able to speak to Sato-san at the distribution centre and he informed her that their most pressing need was food. Canned food was okay but they would prefer fresh.

I got in touch with a reputable charity and spoke to them three times. I told them I needed food and they said they could provide some but wouldn't be able to provide a full amount (2 ton truck's worth). Scott McCaskie posted on the Foreign Volunteers Japan website that he had about a 2 ton truck's worth of supplies - tooth brushes, baby and adult diapers, baby food etc and most importantly food. He kindly offered us some of the stuff he'd collected and so we arranged with the charity to collect food from them on Saturday before filling the rest of the truck with Scott’s stuff.

In the meantime Dave spent ages trying to get a truck and thanks to one of his friends he was able to book a 2ton truck so we were all set for a Saturday departure. Andy volunteered to come with us but when we went to pick up the truck it was only in the 2 big lads size so Andy unfortunately had to miss out.

Even before we left the truck rental place one of Dave’s friends had dropped some stuff off so we were well on the way. The first stop was the charity place and as this was a truck there was no navigation system. Not to worry as Dave had programmed his iphone with directions and we should be there in about 20 minutes. About 40 minutes later Dave realized my sense of direction, even when following a moving map left a lot to be desired and he was going to be in for an even longer night than he expected.

So anyway, we arrived at the charity and to cut a long story short, they allowed us to take some boxes.  Of the 9 or 10 volunteers who were at the charity ONE of them volunteered to help us so we took about ¼ of a trucks worth of stuff that mostly wasn’t food. But as Dave said, these people do a lot of good work all of the time and not just when something big has happened. So they do deserve credit for their work. But I was a little bit frustrated that we didn't get more food.

Then we went to the combini to get essential supplies for the trip. Sweets, snickers, water, snickers, sports drinks, snickers and as we were paying I noticed they were selling cans of tuna. So we got three because we’d promised the people of Kesennuma that we’d take food and the very least we’d have some. Not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.

Our next stop was Scott’s in Roppongi. Scott works for Allied Pickfords and he and his company had collected a lot of supplies. Scott was also helping to supply a second FVJ truck and after a quick call he agreed to let us have all of the food as well as whatever other stuff the other group couldn’t take. We made our way over to Roppongi to fill the rest of the truck but Dave had sensibly asked for a number of volunteers to help so by the time we got there, there were about 7 or 8 people who helped fill the truck in record time. So we were set with a mountain of rice, tuna, canned food, toilet rolls, tissues, underwear etc etc etc. And a couple of bags of fresh salad. So all in all we were delighted with the products that we would be able to take with us and were sure that they would be very well received when we got there.

Dave drove the first leg and we stopped off at Hanyu (a favourite stopping point of the cricket team when we play at Sano). At this point Dave mentioned that one of his friends, Chizu, had provided us with a load of homemade sandwiches – top effort Chizu! So it was homemade sarnies, coffee at Starbucks and we charged our iphones there.

I drove the next leg and things were going smoothly until an orange warning light started flashing on the dashboard. We pulled over, pressed a couple of buttons and it seemed to be okay. Continued on again and we had the same problem. Dave managed to decipher the manual and we discovered we had to pull over and let the engine clean itself for 15 minutes so that’s pretty much what we did until the engine cleaned itself.

The road on this stretch of the route was pretty impressive. There had clearly been massive damage caused by the earthquake on March 11th and we drove over countless areas where repair work had been done. On the return journey on Sunday we discovered that the white line on the edge of the road was no longer joined and in some places the road had shifted up to 30 cm.

I think it’s absolutely remarkable that the engineers were able to repair so much serious damage and have both lanes open of both the North and South bound carriageways within 2 weeks of the disaster.
We stopped off at the next place for more sandwiches, more charging of the iPhone and it was this point I discovered we’d picked the service station closest to Fukushima Dai Ichi. So Dave went outside to counter the radiation threat with a cigarette and off we went to our final stop of the night where we planned to have a few hours sleep before going on in the morning.

The outside temperature was supposed to be -1 so we wrapped up in jumpers, coats and sleeping bags. Dave had the genius idea of turning the engine on for 10 minutes to warm the cab and he was soon snoring away. I have never been the best of sleepers and with that going off as well as the surprisingly bright break lights of people going through the services I was never going to get to sleep. So instead of trying to get comfortable which would have been impossible I decided the smart thing to do was to go to the snack area in the services and stay warm.

I tried to leave the cab without disturbing Dave but managed to catch my sleeping bag in the door. Twice. Which apparently led to all of the really nice warm air leaving the cab and being replaced by something a whole lot colder. But I only have someone else’s opinion on that and you should never trust a mackem.

The only place that I could find to charge my phone was in the men’s toilets so I’d go in there and charge it every now and again. I can’t believe that I’ve just admitted to spending my Saturday night hanging around men’s toilet’s but that seems to be what I did.

At 5 am Dave woke up (was woken) we had a breakfast of champions – Sandwich and cup a soup and we were soon on the way to Kesennuma. I think you’ve all seen the devastating Tsunami that hit Kesennuma and if you don’t then Google it, there’s plenty of video footage.

But as we approached the city I found it exceptionally surreal that life was continuing normally for the vast majority of people in the towns on the way there and even as we entered Kesennuma itself there were no suggestions that there was anything untoward. At one point I even asked Dave if there was more than one Kesennuma’s because there really didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. And then we turned a corner and drove down a road which was coated in sand and dirt and as we drove down this road we were suddenly in a scene from a movie.

We decided the best thing to do would be to go to the depot where we needed to and drop off all of the supplies. After another spell of my infamous map reading skills we made it to the depot at around 7:40 am. There was already a number of Japan Self Defence Troups there as well as a number of drivers from the local Takkyubin (parcel delivery service).

It was immediately obvious that the takkyubin couriers were working with the SDF to deliver all of the aid to the 88 shelters in the city. We went in to the main office and introduced ourselves as members of the FVJ (and the other charity) and the people there were naturally very happy that we had come. But at no point did they seem remotely bothered that we were foreign. They just were very happy that people had brought them aid. We gave our details and waited for us to be called. As we waited we watched in shock and admiration as the SDF emptied the contents of a very large trailer in about 10 minutes. A few snow flurries fell and it was pretty cold (long t-shirt weather) and then it was our turn to unload. We drove to the unloading bay and what happened next was just a blur of professionalism, effectiveness and pure quality. I never thought I would see such an efficient outfit in Japan but they emptied the van with a speed and efficiency that was impressive. A maximum of 8 minutes and we were on our way. And we forgot to give them our cans of tuna.

We stopped back in to the main office to talk to the people in charge and find out what their current need situation was. They didn’t need any more water or balnkets which is good to hear but they still need food – especially fresh food or food for cooking like miso, consomm√© and stuff to add to rice. Thanks charity.

We said we’d see what we could do and then headed back to the town centre and have a look at the devastation we'd seen on TV. We didn’t feel at all comfortable and drove round a few areas but didn’t stop because it just didn’t feel right. You’ve seen the pictures and there’s not a lot I can add except to say it really is horrific but again the SDF have done a superb job at starting what seems to be an impossible task. Roads are opened, stuff has been tidied up and it is neatly piled.

It’s very easy to look at the wood and not attribute it to a house. Certainly what was piled up by the rivers could easily be confused with pollution/fly tipping in the UK but the rest was, simply impossible to describe. Girders just don’t bend like that. Nor do lampposts and cars don’t belong on houses. For me it is possible to distance yourself from much of the debris. But when you see a shoe on top of the detritus in a shop. Or a child’s toy. It was a bit too much.

At one point I said to Dave that I was concerned that my frown would be permanently etched on my face. It was horrific and we felt uneasy by being there. We didn’t stay long and headed back towards Tokyo.

Shortly afterwards I started to finally nod off. Dave braked hard and immediately apologized for waking me up. Which obviously made me very suspicious.

We took turns driving the rest of the way back and managed to get back just an hour late at 5 pm.
It was a hell of a day and a hell of a journey but completely worthwhile.

A number of people have thanked me for doing this and I think I can speak for Dave in this regard. We were just the face of this small project. There were many, many people involved.
The people who donated the food to that charity as well as to Scott and Andy W for having the inspired idea of raising sponsorship and getting 180,000 yen pledged to the Japan red cross.
Chizu for the sandwiches (they really were that good)

Those who helped load the truck at Scott’s (and Dave D for the chocolate)
The guy at the charity who helped, even those who were not helping must (surely??) have done something useful, Scott for giving so much of the stuff that people in Kesennuma needed
The SDF guys for their help in emptying the truck at the depot
Dave for putting up with me for 23 hours (he had two hours sleep).
Dave's friend for getting the truck
Lindsay for calling Kesennuma
We were the drivers, the couriers but without everyone else’s contribution we’d have had a very empty truck.

So thank you all and please continue to contribute in any shape, or form that you can.
There are a lot of people who still need help.

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