Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shovel Ready

Geared up mid day. I hope to have pictures of the final Mud Monster phase of my evolution available soon.

The summer days are long in Akita, and they start early-- I dragged my butt out of bed Saturday morning at 4:00 to find a misty dawn already rising over the park. My purpose, now that my life has, approximately speaking, settled into routine, was to get a look at, and possibly help with, the decidedly less settled post-tsunami situation on the eastern coast of Tohoku, still in the news (and in conversation) three months on.

I'd volunteered some weeks ago for just such an opportunity, signing up through AIU's volunteer group to help with relief efforts in the town of Kesennuma, briefly known in the aftermath of the 3/11 quake as the ostensible site of a harrowing eyewitness video that was replayed breathlessly on CNN and Youtube for days afterward. From watching Japanese coverage on TV, I knew that in Kesennuma, as in the rest of the coast, the crisis had now entered what promised to be an extended shovels-and-rakes recovery phase. I accordingly came dressed for mud, my gaijin-sized Dickies coveralls courtesy of a care-package.  (Believe it or not, I got compliments for my choice in swanky brand!) 

Thanking Alien Jones for Rainbow Mountain Blend, I got on a chartered bus with 20 or so Japanese students, did my best to read over an ominously detailed list of rules, written in Japanese officialese
(<Don't go ANYWHERE ALONE. Notify your group leader if you get ANYTHING in your eye>)
and set out for the three hour drive southeast, my homework in my lap.

We headed east, punching through the mountainous spine of Honshu in an uncountable number of mile-long tunnels which, from their size and profligate number, looked to have been built during the late 60's, a time of stupefyingly rapid economic growth and somewhat overheated enthusiasm for large, pork-barrely infrastructure projects. Judging by the unimpressive number of cars I saw on the road, whatever the Economic Miracle-era technocrats had been planning with the freeway hadn't exactly come to pass.

We stopped at a convenience store at Ichinoseki as I waited for signs of earthquake damage to become visible, breakfasting on something called Calorie Mate-- a surprisingly filling block of (allegedly) chocolate-flavored high-energy [400 kcal/serving, 8.7g fat, more vitamins than fit a page] lifeboat rations sold OTC in AIU's vending machines, apparently for late nights of studying.

Better living through chemistry.
 I was heartened, as we entered Kesennuma, to not have seen much to tip me to the earthquake-- a floor-to ceiling window cracked on the front of a car dealership and a loose facade on a hotel were all I had seen as we descended from the hills around town toward a prepared volunteer staging center across the street from the police station. In contrast to the completely undamaged high ground, the damage was more visible here-- there was a distinct high-water mark 3 meters off the ground on lighter-colored buildings, a few houses and shops had clearly been bent in the direction of the wave, lower floors of most of the structures I could see were boarded up, and rusty stumps indicated where destroyed street signs had been ground off for safety. Here and there an empty lot filled with building materials showed where a structure had been demolished. Even so, the recovery looked well under way-- cars picked their ways through the streets, and here and there people were busy sweeping detritus out of their homes. One fellow looked to be most of the way to refinishing his wood floors already.

It was presumably in the interests of these folks that we were now told, politely but firmly, that only the group's authorized photographer, Hiroki, would be allowed to take pictures once we left the bus, to my chagrin. This unpleasant news was followed by a wide-ranging discursus by our group on drinking water, not talking to local people, watching for cars, (yes, seriously), and keeping good track of our tools. It all naturally made one wonder what kind of people they'd managed to attract to previous groups.

Safety and rule-briefed, we were detailed to clean what we were told was one of the last major areas in this sector left untouched by debris-removal teams-- the roadside drainage ditches.

Perhaps to maintain continuity with their countryside cousins, the irrigation channels that line the edges of rice paddies, and perhaps to facilitate the kind of task we'd just been assigned, most all city roads I'd seen so far in Akita (and now Miyagi Prefecture) are largely curbless, lined on both sides by drainage channels covered by perforated concrete lids and steel grates. The channels, officially called 下水溝(gesuikō), are roughly a meter deep and just about wide enough for a man to stand abreast the channel-- typically more than enough drainage for the rains up here without having to dig underground storm drains. 

With the coming of the tsunami, however, the gutters had backed up and filled to the brim with a semi-solid mass of alluvial silt, plastic refuse and other waterborne wreckage. It fell, unhappily, to us to transfer this mess to hundreds of plastic sandbags and stack them for later disposal, using shovels and what appeared to be specialized gutter-straining tools-- a sort of shafted, perforated metal scoop like a long-handled pooper-scooper. Outfitted with my boiler-suit, two towels (tied in Japanese fashion, one about the head, one at the neck), chemical-proof gauntlets, and boots, I set to it with my group.

I was less than pleased to discover that the debris we were shoveling and scoopering turned out, once disturbed, to be one of the most vile substances I'd ever had the misfortune of coming in contact with-- it smelled, for reasons I prefer even now not to speculate on, a dead ringer for ripe pig feces, and contained a vast number of small and medium pieces of domestic wreckage-- plastic bags, flower pots, stuffed toys, rotting books, clothes, CDs, bottles, broken glass--- all of it unnervingly (sometimes dangerously) textured, and unsettlingly poignant in appearance.

Before long, I'd found a memorial plaque from a family's Buddhist altar, rendered illegible by seawater, two boxed DVDs (Gone with the Wind and Sanchōme no Yūhi, both titles I've seen), a matched pair of cooking chopsticks, and a bottle of Crown Royal in my drainage ditch, still capped but somehow half-filled with silt. Surprisingly large objects had made it into the drains, somehow-- there were pieces of plywood, road signs, the ten-foot track of an aluminum sliding door, and a sturdy camera tripod-- the same model as the one I had at home. The worst find turned out to be a store-packed bag of fish I found at the bottom of a trench. Three months of burial in the anaerobic mud had converted them into a bacterial mass with a literally unspeakable aroma. I was glad when none of my shovelfuls turned up any of the numerous former residents still counted among the missing.

We broke for lunch at 11:30, where I was promoted to bag-hauler-- now instead of filling the dripping, vile sandbags, I was assigned with 4 other guys from the prefectural university to load them into trucks for disposal-- one oozing, 50 pound sack at a time. I'm still pestering Hiroki for a copy of the shot he got of me around 3PM: I'm wearing my towel, safety goggles, and a surgical mask like some kind of apocalyptic wanderer, caked on nearly every surface with evil-smelling mud, looking cinematically grim and determined. It's quite the snap.

With my 4 bag-tossing comrades, I'd helped load around 5 blocks worth of ditch-stuff  by the time we pulled up stakes at 4:30, the bus now airless and pungent with the smell of our discarded mud-clothes. As I investigated the interesting pattern of hot-spots on my palms, I noticed that we seemed to be taking an alternate route back to the highway-- headed, in fact towards the sea. And then I saw it.

We crossed a bridge over a tidal inlet, headed for the lowest point of Kesennuma, probably more than half a mile away from the 'mild' damage of the day's labor site. To my left, cranes were attempting to pluck three over-turned tractor-trailers out of the inlet. Ahead of us lay a scene of nearly apocalyptic destruction.

Houses, torn from their foundations, lay here and there there amidst the matchsticked remains of their neighbors, pounded to flotsam. Cars, boats, and detritus lay scattered about. Our group leader explained us that the red markings on each car and structure (OK/完了)meant that each had been swept for bodies by the Self-Defense Forces.
It was a macabre and terrifying scene, made worse by the surreal abruptness with which it had come into view, and the bizarrely defined area of low ground that the wave, I could now see, had pounded to fragments, sparing the hills. As we left the the hellish wreckage-scape, we passed an open big-box store and were again among an apparently normal Japanese city within blocks.

The contrast left one with a faintly giddy feeling-- a weird emotional vertigo. The city hadn't been totally destroyed-- but whole districts had been carved out with an unsettling precision that looked, from the top of the hills, almost purposeful. We sat in silence, trying to breathe through our mouths and, it seemed to me, trying to process what we'd seen and done. The disaster's effects had been both better and worse than I'd expected. It had spared much but when it took, it left nothing. It'd take a lot more than college students armed with shovels and rakes to even make a dent in what I'd seen.

We rode past highway signs draped with banners reading がんばろう!東北! <Ganbarō! Tōhoku!/Hang in there, Tohoku!> in the gathering darkness as I worked my knotted shoulders.  Amen to that, I thought. There's more to endure than I thought.

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