Helping with tsunami cleanup
strengthens resolve to serve
By Lauren McMurray, ’07
I just arrived back from my work in Japan. I am exhausted. There is still so much work left to be done in Ishinomaki, and that was only one of the several coastal areas destroyed by the tsunami. I wanted to share a little bit of my experience. Thank you to everyone who supported me in my efforts. It was something I had to do and I hope to do again soon.
Every morning from 7:30 a.m. we began our work. Each team of six to seven people was assigned a house or area for the day. The foreign teams were mostly assigned the grunt cleaning work at the disaster sites. It was easy to point us in the direction we needed to go: the job was relatively self-explanatory, and little language was needed. The Japanese teams mostly served the interior of the city, cleaning out shops and washing walls, or cooking meals for the locals. The Japanese men’s teams were on bag removal, riding around in large trucks and stopping at locations where we had piled debris bags and loading them to be taken to one of the debris sites.
We worked until noon, took an hour break for lunch, and returned to finish the job if we were able. Our team usually ended work around 5 p.m. We would then return to our make-shift outpost (a building also destroyed by the tsunami), wash our tools, strip down our gear and if we were lucky, get pressure hosed off. We then had about an hour to ourselves before having to return to our camp area by 7 p.m. The generators were switched on for two hours while we cooked our meals on camp stoves and cleaned the rest of the grime and dirt off our faces with wet wipes before heading off to bed. We could not use soap or toothpaste, and there was limited running water mostly reserved for cleaning the tools at the end of the day.
The work was gratifying and most days a stiffening experience. We worked about 3-4 miles inland; the waterline on the houses was nearly at 10-12 feet high. That was where it actually settled, so you can imagine the peak height of the wave.
I mainly did shoveling work. We had to remove a toxic sludge called hedoro from all of the sites. If we were lucky the hedoro would have dried in crackled heavy sheets that were easy to scoop. If we were unlucky, it was churned under mounds of debris or even wet and impossible to scoop. It smelled of hot tar, oil, and rotting rice and mildew.
On the days we dealt with the wet hedoro, we were required to tape shut every opening to our suits. If it got on your skin, it stained it instantly a blue-black like a bruise. The work pulled at every muscle in the body, and at night we all lay stretched out and aching. We all had to grow strong quickly, and little by little each day we were able to tackle a task more quickly without the sense of foreboding and the ominous shadow of: How?
Some sites seemed impossible; metal was twisted and entwined so tightly around trees, broken windows and mounds of debris. Large doors, car parts, shards of glass over 2 feet long, shoes, toys, laundry still on the hanger, sacks of rotting meat and fish, cups and bowls, chairs, every bit of waking life churned and discarded every which way. Each shovel scoop a painstakingly long process of uncovering debris before continuing on to finally have one gratifying scoop that slid easily along and without hindrance.
This was only such a small portion of the disaster area. The scope of devastation beyond where we were assigned was contrasted sharply. Nothing was left a mile from the shoreline, except a gray sullen scape of twisted debris, and the square jointed plots of stones and cement where hundreds of houses once stood. The debris fields located along the coast were six or seven football fields long, piled high with stacks of metal and wood, cars and other materials that made the cranes and bulldozers next to them look like small plastic toys.
It was slow, hard work, but each day we saw improvement in the city. Fields that held debris at the start of the week were cleared and leveled off. Piles of trash that were laid up over a story high against the sides of buildings were removed. The stunted plants and trees were growing and blooming again. It’s hard to imagine how life returns to normal, but I was able to see it a little more each day. It makes you realize how fortunate we all are. Something as simple as eating a hot meal, using soap and hot water, and smelling clean sheets on a bed — I will never again take these for granted.
A flood of water doesn’t wash away what you once were. It churns it up violently and deposits everything in fragments. It is not clean or even thorough. It does not leave you entirely with the satisfaction that your home and memories are gone because they lie in thick mildewing mounds at your feet. You want to salvage but you can’t.
The last day we were all taken by bus to a small temple on the hillside that overlooked the bay. The hill was vibrant and unblemished. The flowers here were in full bloom and were not struggling to survive like the ones down below. There was a large stone temple gate that captured the ocean and city below. We all stood teary eyed and solemn. No one spoke. Our Japanese teammates, in a moment of such tenderness, cried quietly and embraced one another. Something so rarely seen in a culture that keeps emotions tightly corded and hidden. Although we can sympathize, we cannot truly understand the disaster as they can, but merely give our compassion, and where possible our own two hands to help those in need.
Lauren McMurray graduated from the Honors Program at Texas State University in 2007 with a bacholor’s degree in art and design. She recently returned from Japan, where she volunteered to help clear the catastrophic destruction of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which occurred March 11, 2011. Her story was originally posted on the Honors Program Facebook page.