Survivors take lead as volunteers in Japan’s disaster zone

By Chisa Fujioka

HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – Two weeks after a tsunami submerged his home in northeast Japan, Naoki Ishimori is busy not only restoring his own life but helping others do the same.

Often led by survivors, volunteer groups are sprouting in the area to clear wreckage, salvage supplies and lift battered spirits in once-vibrant fishing and farming communities that were flattened by the March 11 quake and tsunami.

The disaster killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 16,000 missing. About a quarter of a million people are homeless.

“I would get bored if I just stayed in the evacuation center all day,” said Ishimori, 38, a construction site worker in the Pacific coast town of Higashimatsushima.

“My house was flooded but other houses here are worse off.”

Ishimori, who lost his job after the tsunami, is part of a 70-strong volunteer group in the town. Members shovel mud out of homes, dry drenched tatami mats and clear away debris.

Such groups have been formed across the region in a sign of Japan’s famed social cohesion and community commitment.

The spirit of unity is reminiscent of Japan’s last major quake in the western city of Kobe in 1995, regarded by many as a precious legacy born out of tragedy. In a volunteer movement that united the nation, more than 1.3 million people rushed to Kobe to fill gaps left by a sluggish government response. A similar mass volunteer movement is taking hold after this disaster, though authorities are for now stemming the influx of well-wishers from outside.

Professional aid groups and disaster experts try to discourage volunteers from abroad, unless they are trained emergency responders or have medical or logistics experience in post-disaster zones.


“Right now, this area cannot handle a large number of volunteers coming in,” said Yasushi Yokoyama, who was helping run a volunteer center at Ofunato City Hall. “There will come a time when we will need a lot of people to come and help, but now is not that time.”

The rebuilding effort will be colossal. Damage could top $300 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster.

The government has posted a long list of “do’s and don’ts” for aspiring volunteers on a web site, encouraging people to book hotels in advance, bring their own food and avoid coming if they cannot register with a volunteer group on the ground.

Authorities are worried about relief efforts becoming chaotic, especially when the military and police are still picking through debris looking for bodies. The area is also suffering from a fuel shortage, limiting transport. Many people from outside, though, are eager to help and those who have already made it to the region say they have been welcomed.

“The biggest challenge was people before we came saying we should not go. But now that we are, people have been encouraging,” said Chad Huddleston, a missionary from the Japanese church network “Be One.” He was delivering food, blankets, socks and underwear to survivors in Kesennuma, another town ravaged by the tsunami. “My heart hurts for the people so I just want to help as much as I can.”

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Robert Birsel)

Survivors take lead as volunteers in Japan’s disaster zone