Volunteering in the tsunami zone

It's been over a year since I wrote anything here. I guess I felt that I'd nothing much to say. But the March 11 megaquake and tsunami in eastern Japan was, to say the least, a life changing experience. Not that my day to day life has changed all that much, and I was never really in any harm, but the way I view life has changed. When I had the choice to leave Tokyo I realized that my home now is here, so there never really was any question of leaving. Instead, I decided to lend a hand and joined the many people volunteering in the tsunami zone. Below is an article/journal I wrote for The Japan Times newspaper about my week as a volunteer.

A volunteer's journal of hope for Tohoku
Many willing hands in organized groups are aiding
in the massive post-March 11 clean-up
Special to The Japan Times

When the magnitude 9 megaquake hit northeastern Japan in the early afternoon of Friday, March 11, I was at work in The Japan Times office some 250 km to the south in Tokyo.

As the building here shook, I ran down the emergency stairs fearing for my life and then stood outside watching the high-rises around us swaying. I was absolutely terrified — and it didn't get any better when the tsunami warning screeched out of speakers in the neighborhood.

After running back inside — because the JT office is at sea level on Tokyo Bay — I found the newsroom was in chaos, with quake alarms sounding constantly on people's cellphones and the radio as the first aftershocks started to rattle the country, and TVs all showing horrific live images of the tsunami as our reporters scrambled to make sense of what was happening and get the story out.

I admit I was so scared that I left work early to head home on foot, as all public transport seemed to be halted.

In the days that followed, as the full impact of what had happened in the Tohoku region began to be revealed, I felt a little ashamed of my behavior. I had never actually been in any danger in Tokyo, and as I saw and heard what the people up in the tsunami zone were going through I wanted to help in any way I could.

Then, after a colleague wrote a story about the nonprofit Peace Boat organization's disaster-relief work in the devastated coastal city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, I decided that I would take a week off work and volunteer. After attending a couple of orientation meetings, I was told I could join a Peace Boat group leaving for Tohoku on Friday, April 22.

So, six weeks to the day after the quake hit, I boarded a Peace Boat bus in Tokyo, loaded with everything I would need to survive a week in the disaster zone — camping equipment, seven days' food and water, a dust mask, heavy-duty rubber gloves and boots, a helmet and goggles. We arrived on a rainy Saturday morning and set up camp in the grounds of Ishinomaki Senshu University university — but the real work didn't start until Sunday.

What follows is an only slightly edited copy of the diary I kept at the time, fastidiously keying each day's experiences into my iPhone before curling up exhausted in my sleeping bag.