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Warmth and wreckage in Kesennuma

Japan, April 9, 2011

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Wednesday morning I went with my colleagues Yohei and Ryu from Peace Winds Japan to help deliver kerosene heaters. The northeast of Japan where the tsunami struck is still cold even in April, with temperatures around freezing at night and sometimes during the day as well. Peace Winds Japan distributed several hundred stoves to evacuee centers during the first weeks after the disaster, and yesterday we handed over the remainder to the town of Motoyoshi, a section of Kesennuma City that was particularly hard hit.

Although the evacuee center already had enough heaters, they requested more to make available to people who had not lost their houses, but who still had no electricity and therefore no heat. Kerosene heaters are common in Japan — the smell reminds me of winter afternoons in the teachers’ room in the school where I taught when I lived here — and often double as a way to keep a kettle warm for tea.

We unloaded the truck box by box, handing them off to local volunteers managing the influx of donations. They were thrilled to get the heaters. “There’s no way to get your hands on those here!” one woman exclaimed. We also unloaded a supply of kerosene for them to start with, since that is one of the goods still not well stocked here.

After we unloaded the stoves, Yohei and I went to see what was left of the main shopping area in Kesennuma. Peace Winds and Mercy Corps are working together to support the economic recovery of the tsunami-affected areas, and to do that we needed a closer look at the situation.

The picture was dire (although not as bad as what I would see the next day). We parked at a Seven-11 that was opening and functioning (buying bottled green tea to make up for the use of the parking lot) and walked past small grocery stores, a florist, a gift shop and the city hall into what was once the nightlife district.

This was a dense neighborhood and many of the buildings were still standing, but with shredded walls and trashed interiors. A few had collapsed, crushing their ground floors. Sidewalks and parking lots were filled with rubble and soaked, salt-smelling trash: piles of paper, comic books, VCR tapes, a bulletin board with a few damaged pictures still staring out of it, chairs drying in the sunless cold air, and even, strangely, a vinyl record.

We had to guess at the type of businesses in some buildings based on the names still visible above the doors. Sign posts and streetlights bowed flat along the street, the metal rusting where the force of the wave had bent it to a 90-degree angle. There was an eerie quiet to what a month ago was a bustling shopping area, although a few people drove slowly around, cell phones flipped out to video the destruction.

Walking away from the wreckage, Yohei and I did a quick survey of stores that had survived the tsunami to find out how their sales were and if they were able to restock. Soon the first of the evacuated people will be moving into temporary housing.

Peace Winds Japan is supplying kitchen sets, bedding, and other basic needs, but people will need to buy food and other consumables. Those purchases will help these shops get back to normal business, and hopefully contribute to bringing the Kesennuma economy back to life.