Volunteers help Japan after earthquake and tsunami
23 July 2012
“I opened my door and water was flooding by. Everyone was shouting, ‘Hurry up and escape!’” Satoshi Onodera is over 60 and has lived on Japan’s east coast for years. But “I’ve never seen such a big tsunami,” he said of the massive wave that struck his hometown, Kamaishi, in March 2011. With hundreds of others, he and his wife ran uphill to a temple that became a makeshift evacuation centre.
More than 2500 people volunteered for Caritas Japan.
“A second wave came. It was very big. The buildings were floating,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was real.”
Along the coast, tens of thousands of people were fleeing to high ground, shouting for loved ones and watching their homes swirl away. The tsunami killed over 15000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Onodera and his family were spared. A member of Kamaishi’s small but vibrant Catholic community, Onodera became one of the first survivors to start what would grow into the Caritas response to the disaster. As 250 people huddled in the cold at the temple – “there would be two or three blankets for 10 people,” he remembered – Onodera began working with other local leaders to help his neighbours. “ The first priority was to get water,” he said. “ Then three meals a day. We made 100 rice bowls each time, also milk, soup and pudding.”
Because the Japanese government and armed forces were able to provide food and many essential services in the first days of the crisis, the tsunami called for a different sort of response from Caritas. In Kamaishi and several other coastal towns, Caritas Japan filled in the gaps, mobilising thousands of volunteers over the course of a year. Those volunteers removed tons of mangled debris from neighbourhoods, cleaned mountains of mud from elderly people’s homes, helped fishermen recover their livelihoods and ran soup kitchens. Creating “listening cafes” in church basements where survivors could share their fears and sorrows, Caritas volunteers comforted people who were traumatised by what they had experienced.
More than a year after the tsunami, Japan’s coastal towns are coming to life again and the survivors are beginning to heal. “I thank God I’m alive,” said Keiko Kikuchi, a 79-year-old woman who scrambled up a hill to escape drowning. Later, Caritas volunteers cleaned out her house and the roads near it. “ Without the volunteers, nothing could have been done,” she said.
Thanks to Caritas donors across the world, Japan’s tsunami survivors have received concrete help. But beyond that, they’ve received moral support. They know they’re not alone.