Keep hope alive: Camp Zama volunteers help with ongoing clean-up efforts in Tohoku
August 1, 2012
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ISHINOMAKI, Japan (Aug. 1, 2012) -- "It's just devastation; all these piles of rubble and disintegrated things were peoples' lives and possessions, and it's just gone now. [But] we have the power to help rebuild, and we are using that power now."
This was the lingering destruction in Ishinomaki City as described by Frank Orenstein, 12, one of a group of 15 volunteers from Camp Zama who spent a week providing extensive disaster relief and community goodwill to the northeastern coastal town.
Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture, received some of the most extensive damage as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. Of the city's 163,000 inhabitants in the city, nearly 70 percent were directly affected by the disaster. Around 78,000 buildings were damaged, of which 44,000 were completely destroyed. The city has lost and is missing close to 4,000 people, and damage still remains in many parts of the city.
The volunteer group consisted of Soldiers, family members and teenagers who departed Camp Zama, July 20, and arrived in Ishinomaki to link up with the "Be One" team, a volunteer organization based there.
On their first day there, the group hosted an American-style barbecue for more than 120 people in the city, prepared by Camp Zama's chaplain community. The next day, a children's carnival was organized that included games and face-painting among other activities.
"Everybody I met today was so friendly, and the children [here] seemed very excited to interact with Americans," said Keiko Suzuki, an Ishinomaki resident. "It's very good to see that they actually care about us and want to help us after the disaster."
The volunteers took on various tasks throughout the week, such as helping to renovate buildings, cleaning up kindergartens and rebuilding a community park. The labor-intensive work included removing damaged flooring, ceilings and walls, and clearing rubble and dirt.
"Our purpose is to serve and help the people in Ishinomaki," said James Corneliussen, Camp Zama's Religious Education director and the volunteer tour coordinator. "I just want to help the people who have been through this unbelievable experience, and re-establish a sense of normalcy here."
The Be One team has been working together with Ishinomaki residents for more than 14 months to rebuild a park there. The park was completely covered in rubble, contaminated soil, overturned vehicles and displaced aquatic life after the tsunami struck. Be One began their efforts by raising money to purchase new playground equipment and otherwise fund the renovation. Following the park's July 23 reopening, children from the volunteer group and Ishinomaki played together there.
"The kids in this community have been looking forward to playing at this park," said Susumu Tsuchiya, a community leader of nearby Meiwa Town, located about 300 meters from the coast. "It's just great to see them smiling and playing with friends."
Tsuchiya described the park as "nothing but miserable" after massive tsunami waves surged through the town's streets and residential areas.
"On the day of the tsunami, I saw it coming from the horizon in my room on the fifth floor of the apartment," said Tsuchiya. "I saw a 20-foot-high wave approaching and everything was washed away, including people and cars and everything. It was just a horrifying experience. But we're trying to rebuild the community and move forward."
Corneliussen organized an initial visit to Ishinomaki with seven people from Camp Zama last April. This most recent effort marked their second time working with Be One.
The entire Camp Zama community supported their efforts, Corneliussen said. The Army and Air Force Exchange donated items to the chapel, the Girl Scout donated thousands of origami cranes for the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki, and the Youth Center donated games for the carnival. The city is still in need of continued support, said Corneliussen.
"It has been overwhelming, and it's great to see the U.S. Army Garrison Japan community support and wrap their arms around this," said Corneliussen. "One of the workers here said a volunteer is like a tsunami: They come in quickly, and leave soon after. But we have an opportunity living here in Honshu to be a constant presence in this region, and to provide constant support."