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Flowers are blooming, but Spring will not come to the coast of northeast Japan


Been a busy week. A few notes to catch you up.


A couple of colleagues arrived for a visit, and spent their vacation in a disaster zone. Dr. David Willis is a social psychologist and anthropologist with expertise in disaster relief operations. We are attempting to build connections for bringing to Japan a team of post-disaster trauma care experts to build grassroots trauma programs in devastated communities. Urgent care efforts seem to be gaining adequate levels; but, few seem to be aware of or care about emerging care needs.


On Thursday, we met with a mental health professional who is responsible for elderly trauma care in a nearby city. We also met with faculty at a university. Can’t share details here, but we seem to have already been able to find people with the compassion, capacity, and culture to help us to design and implement a program that is conducive to local needs and customs; also, we might have a university location for holding training seminars.


On Friday, Penny and I took my colleagues on the Misawa Helps trip to the Nodamura debris fields. Take this as a warning; if you come to visit the Duncans, we will probably put you to work clearing debris. These two doctors have worked in disaster areas around the world. Although we have cleared most of the debris from the major debris fields in Nodamura, the scope of the devastation in Nodomura still ellicited disbelief and tears. The words of our friend Matt seemed to ring true: “I have seen devastating war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I have never seen such catastrophe.”


At lunch, we walked into town to meet with a mental health professional who has tirelessly devoted himself to providing urgent care for survivors. He is a suicide prevention expert who is extremely busy applying his skills. Survivor suicide is common. People have not only lost loved ones and homes, but also their livelihoods and heritage. He was initially hesitant about our proposal; but in our hour together, he started to open up to the ideas we were presenting about thinking beyond the urgent needs of his patience to the emerging needs of the community. Our discussion started to feel like collaboration, as he offered ideas and relationships to help us get to the next steps.


On Saturday, Penny wanted to play Easter Bunny for the displaced kids of Tanohata, a village about 40 miles south of Nodamura. We packed my trunk with candy, cheese and peanut butter crackers, and soda. After nothing but life essentials, Penny’s ideas made for some excited faces. A town hall official escorted us to the refugee center to deliver the goodies, and to give us a tour of the facilities.


We met with a recovery team from the Foundation of International Development/Relief in one of the Tanohata debris fields. Tanohata has a series of valleys that open into the ocean. The v-shape of the valleys funneled the tsunamis deep and high into the mountains, destroying multiple communities. Hard to comprehend. The damage back in Nodamura is equivalent to one Hiroshima-class nuclear bomb. Tanohata looks like it had a nuclear bomb go off in each of its valleys. We held our meeting with the disaster team near a staircase to nowhere. The spot had been the train station. All that remained was the stairs, a couple of massive cement towers that once supported the train tracks, and miles of rubble and debris that had once been a scenic beach town.


We headed further south to Miako and Yamada, where the Japanese Army is still looking for bodies and cleanup has not begun. I do not think I have the capacity to grasp the extent of damage. The nuclear bomb analogy fails, because the damage is so much more extensive than a nuclear bomb could inflict. Mountains of devastation as far as we could see, along miles of once-heavily-populated coastline that was supposed to have been protected by miles of massive tsunami walls. I had previously expressed a sense of pride for the cleanup we are doing in Nodamura; but felt humbled and derisory when seeing the devastation in Miako and Yamada. I don’t care how many busloads of volunteers we send into there, it would take years to make a dent. I am at a loss about what to do and how to influence recovery there. Maybe it's like eating an elephant: one bite at a time.


On Sunday, we came full circle by revisiting the potato farmers, pig farmers, and beaches we had helped immediately after the tsunami. After seeing Yamada and Miyako, I almost feel embarrassed about having used words like “devastation” and “catastrophe” to describe the damaged areas in Misawa and Hachinohe. Like shouting “murder” because I saw someone step on a tack. These areas suffered economic and psychological trauma; but no adequate comparison seems to describe the insignificance of the damage in Misawa and Hachinohe when compared to that in Nodamura, Tanohata, and Miyako. The damage in each area accelerates exponentially, with each level further exceeding comprehension. Alice in Disasterland provides an obvious analogy; the deeper you go the more mind-boggling it becomes. 


Meanwhile, back in Misawa, damage to the farms and beaches has almost been erased--thanks to the volunteers from the Misawa Air Base. The people of Misawa seem to be moving on as if nothing had happened; completely unaware of the wasteland to the south. A few days ago I was feeling proud of what we had done to help Misawa, Oirase, Hachinohe, and Nodamura get on the track to recovery. However, after our trip south, I am again struggling to comprehend the scope of disaster and its effects on the people and culture. I am overwhelmed by inadequacy.


Artwork that is influenced by Shinto philosophy typically shows vast, bucolic nature with a small solitary angler holding his pole in a stream. The purpose is to show the insignificance of man in nature. The message seems appropriate, but rather than a fisherman in bucolic nature, the insignificant man is bending over to pick up trash in a vast landscape of debris. Time to bring in the heavy equipment. Meanwhile, flowers are starting to bloom; but, this year, spring will not come to many coastal communities of northeastern Japan. 


Pics and film later.