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Forty families, forty minutes

Japan, May 14, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' Roger Burks (left) and Peace Winds' Mao Sato stand where some of the city of Rikuzentakata used to be. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One box in the set of household supplies that families moving into temporary housing in Kamaichi received today. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Moving the household supplies into temporary homes, into which displaced families are moving today. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Masao and Kyoko Abe. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

All along the coast of northeastern Japan, houses and belongings are scattered along beaches. Scraped into piles by earth movers. Hanging in trees. Since the earthquake and tsunami hit this area two months ago, the Japanese government has cleared away most of the wreckage of that disastrous day — but the debris that remains is a reminder of lives that were taken or taken apart.

In devastated cities like Kamaishi, a steel mill town that lost at least 1,250 people to the tsunami, Mercy Corps is working alongside partner Peace Winds to help survivors put their lives and homes back together.

Today, together, we delivered two truckloads of household supplies to temporary housing units in Kamaishi. These supplies included bedding, kitchen utensils, personal hygiene items, cooking tools and clothes — most of the basics to start over after losing everything. And these temporary housing units, built by the provincial government, are giving displaced families the chance to move out of the schools and community centers where they've been staying since the disaster, into a space of their own.

Remarkably, this temporary housing was constructed in less than a month. That's great news for local survivors, since almost 30 percent of families in Kamaichi were displaced by the tsunami.

Peace Winds and Mercy Corps are putting these household supplies into the temporary homes before families move in. That way, when they arrive, they'll be able to unpack right away and have what they need to begin making this space a home. By many estimates, families will be living in this temporary housing for two to three years, so it's encouraging for them to open the door to such a substantial housewarming gift.

This is the first day that displaced families could move into these particular temporary housing units. While we were taking supplies from the trucks and placing them into each apartment, most of the families hadn't started moving in yet — but 70-year-old Masao Abe and his wife, 63-year-old Kyoko, had been here since mid-morning. They'd heard about the supplies Peace Winds was bringing and were excited to have a look.

Since the day after the tsunami, Masao and Kyoko had been living at their daughter's house, which was unaffected by the disaster. Their home and all their belongings were lost to the waves. When the tsunami struck, Masao was at a meeting of retirees from the local steel mill, where he worked most of his life. He felt the earthquake and then got an alert over his cell phone that a tsunami was coming — a warning that doubtless saved thousands of lives around here. Kyoko was at the house with their grandchild, and the two of them quickly headed for higher ground when the alert sounded. Masao, Kyoko and their grandchild were reunited at a local park later that day.

That day — March 11 — was Kyoko's 63rd birthday. When the disaster struck, she and her grandchild were preparing for a party. Kyoko says she can never forget that day, but is thankful for her family's safety.

And today, she and Masao are happy that they have supplies to furnish their temporary space. Masao has already made several trips back to the skeleton that remains of their old house, beginning to clean it in the hopes that, one day soon, he can start to rebuild.

But for now, this is home for Masao, Kyoko and 39 other families from the Kamaishi area. Working together with volunteers and local government staff, Peace Winds and Mercy Corps unloaded the trucks and placed supplies in every temporary housing unit in just 40 minutes' time.

We wanted to make sure that families had those things waiting for them when they arrived — and we sincerely hope that it will make their move a little easier.