Current Information · Fukushima 福島 · Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, March 12, 2011 · Updates

Visit to Fukushima

I was getting tired of hearing about people starving and being without water in Fukushima, so I decided to go up there the other day and try to do something about it. I arrived in the afternoon on Sunday the 20th in Iwaki City.

As far as the picture of devastation that we have been shown on TV, I found it to be every bit as bad as they say. There was a car hooked on top of a guard rail on the side of the street just down the street from a police station I went to. On the sides of some main roads, there were large pieces of debris, such as refrigerators, kitchen appliances, desks, chunks of wood, sand everywhere and piles of dried reeds. An elementary school that I went to had about 10 big “steps” on a playground that previously had been flat. There were 30 meter “rips” in the pavement where huge chunks of the ground had been shoved up, or had sunk down. Telephone poles were leaning to the side. A concrete staircase had broken in half.

But amazingly, most sections of the town look untouched, except for holes in the tiled roofs. Lights were on outside many stores, but the vast majority of the stores were not open. Most people did not have water yet, but the police station and the city branch office I went to did have water, and people were free to come and fill up tanks with water at the city office.

I did not see any other volunteers at the city office, but there were about 20 big boxes filled with things that had been donated in the entrance to the building. There were four men who were dividing up what had been donated, I guess to be distributed to different sections of the city. I donated about 4 boxes of food, some old clothes, and odds and ends that I thought might be useful. For example, bags of rice, toilet paper, various instant foods, and the kinds of things that you’d use when “camping out”, such as tape, rope, batteries, and plastic bags. The people at the city office bowed and said thank you many times, as I carried the things in to the building. Everyone in the town I met was super nice. The police, even though they all looked totally exhausted, were polite, patient, and helpful. There were about 20 people, mostly police with some office staff, at the police station.

There was a big truck at the city office, whose drivers were delivering big boxes to the same area where I had been sent. I assume they were delivering other supplies that had been donated.

Driving up to Iwaki City right now is a relatively simple process, provided you pay attention to the road signs and listen to the radio to get the latest updates on which roads are open and which are still closed. But it took a long time to get there because of the need to stop and get gas, the traffic jams caused by people lining up for gas, and the many closed roads, forcing you to take a round about way to get from point A to point B. Gasoline was still being rationed in Ibaragi Prefecture. You were typically only allowed to buy one or two thousand yen worth of gas at any one station, so whenever I saw a station that was selling gas but did not have a huge line, I stopped and took advantage of the opportunity. I guess it took between 12 and 14 hours of driving to get up there from Tokyo, with brief breaks, but I was afraid of driving on Route 6, which goes along the coast because much of it goes through areas that were devastated by the tsunami. If I had taken the straight, wide Route 6 instead of the narrow inland roads I meandered along, I would have saved 1 or 2 hours.

An expert the other day in the U.S. (Cal Tech scientist) said on the radio that typically there will be an earthquake that is 1 level of magnitude lower than the original earthquake within 3 months after a big earthquake. In other words, this means to me that some time in the next 3 months there will probably be an earthquake of 8 in magnitude in northeastern Japan. (Not all earthquakes, even large ones, will cause a tsunami, but still there is a chance of a tsunami hitting that area again). I had that in mind as I went up. But on the way back to Nagoya I was so tired, I took the risk of driving on Route 6 for about 1 hour. Perhaps there are other people as afraid as I was to drive on it.

Given the reaction of the police and the small number of supplies at the city office I went to, it was obvious that they needed volunteers. I guess they are in the early stages of making it systematic. There is probably no lodging available for volunteers, so if you go up there, you will need to arrange your own lodging. Obviously much of the city has been destroyed, so it might be necessary for people to stay in a neighboring city, like Hitachi (Ibaragi Prefecture). A person at the prefectural office said that Iwaki City was one of the cities most in need of volunteers, but as of Friday, they were not ready to accept “outside” volunteers yet. Thinking that this helpful person could not accept help from an outside volunteer because he could not guarantee my safety or find lodging for me, I ignored that and slept in my car. The day I got up there, there was an announcement on the radio that they were in need of volunteers and a phone number was given for people to call. (I did not write down the number, but it was probably a number made possible by a prefectural or city government. I will post phone numbers for volunteers to call if I find them). If I were to go up there again, which I might, I would try to arrange a place to stay in a neighborhood where electricity and water were available, probably in a sizable city, like Hitachi, maybe in a home stay situation, or in a hotel.

One reason I went up there (uninvited!) was that I wanted to see what was going on up there with my own eyes–what kind of volunteer work was going on and who was doing it. What I saw and heard confirmed exactly what I expected–that in spite of all the promises, all the money that has been donated, and all the talk on radio and TV, people are still desperate, and lack many basic essentials. Electricity is available in most of the City of Iwaki and water is now available at the city office I went to, but many people are sleeping in freezing gymnasiums without warm clothes, many are malnourished, and many cannot take baths or even wash their face. This is after a week. To me, this is expected but still inexcusable in a country with a high standard of living like Japan.

To be fair and to put this in perspective, my mother volunteered for the disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina, and what she saw was far worse. After 2 weeks, there were still corpses rotting in the streets in the area she went to. She said that the stench was horrible, and that it stuck to your clothes so that when you returned to your hotel at night, you wanted to wash all your clothes right away. There was no stench in Iwaki, and all the streets were clear of debris. You could see many places where people had sweeped the streets with brooms, not only on private land but also on public streets. This meant to me that the police and rescue teams have done their job well. It was encouraging for me to see that the Japanese national government and local governments are far more active and more organized than their counterparts were in the United States after Katrina. (I want to think that Katrina was an exception there).

Military vehicles (“Self Defense” Forces) were there. I think I saw police vehicles from other areas on the way there. You can tell there is a modicum of organization. But when I went to the police office, they could not direct me anywhere. They did not seem to know what was going on. They sent me to an elementary school which was supposed to be an evacuation center, but there was no one there. Fortunately, when I came back, they made some calls and sent me to a branch city
office where things were happening. There were lots of fire
trucks, and I saw about 15 people rushing here and there.

The most desperate scene I remember was a line of 10 or 20 people outside a 100-yen shop, which I drove past. I don’t know what they were trying to buy there, but the look on the faces of people waiting was desperate. Everyone’s hair was disheveled and many people had dirty clothing on, which is not something you see everyday in this country. There were a lot of people walking along main highways, even in Ibaragi, as well as families on bicycles, an indication of the difficulty of getting gas or people not having cars.

If you go up there, with a little effort, you can find out who needs
help. I would guess that the Fukushima Prefectural Office has a hotline set up for volunteers by now, and that city offices in the area can also direct you to areas that need help. Many people seem to be waiting for some big organization, like the government, to take the lead. Their attitude may be justified, based on past experience with government offices, but in this case, maybe it’s time for grassroots organizations, NGOs, and plain old individual citizens to assume leadership. That is one of the things I felt after going to Fukushima–that we can do this on our own, spontaneously. So many people want to help, according to what I hear on TV, and watching TV two nights ago, I saw a news special in which there were 100 people waiting in a room somewhere in Tokyo, waiting to be dispatched. My feeling when I saw this was, “What are they doing just sitting there?! Why are they not being sent up to northeastern Japan immediately? A waste of a precious resource.” Most of them looked like they were college age. Strong and healthy and energetic. Obviously, there is something wrong when, on the one hand, the roads to the Northeast are wide open (except for expressways), there are 100 volunteers sitting in chairs in a big room, all raising their hands, saying they are ready to go, and when on the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of evacuees, many of them desperate for help, and a large percentage of them in evacuation centers. What’s going on?

And again, even when there was no official system for sending volunteers to specific areas, there is plenty of work that needs to be done, and all the people I met, including people in the few convenience stores that were open in Hitachi and other parts of Ibaragi Prefecture, were very helpful. A lot of people stared at me, probably curious about why I was there, but it was innocent curiosity I saw in their eyes, not suspicion.

Iwaki City seemed like a quaint town with lots of history and a unique culture. As Wikipedia says, “rich in sightseeing resources.” (,_Fukushima) The radio was announcing which hot springs and public baths were open, and how much they cost, and there were a lot of them. They are probably overcrowded, but that can be fun, too, like the hot springs at a ski resort during a winter holiday. If you are the kind of person who can camp out, and you have camping equipment, you could probably go up there right now. Most of the basic “lifeline” services are available. If you are not that kind of person, you can still do it if you contact a volunteer center or people you know in northeastern Japan and arrange lodging. In Ibaragi, there were supermarkets that were open and not all the shelves were bare in convenience stores. With the roads open and the demand for goods up there, I’m sure it will not be long before stores are restocked and open for business.

March 23, 2011
Joseph Essertier