0h, no! Not again! This thought hit me almost physically as I saw the sudden news flash of the explosion of the Usuzan Volcano on the northern island of Hokkaido. The TV bulletin brought back memories of the Shimabara Unzen Volcano that exploded the same way nine years ago. Our Japan Emergency Team was the first group to arrive at that disaster scene and we battled for more than a month as ash rained down on the small Kyushu city.
At the same time flashbacks of similar disasters in Japan from the Okushiri, Hokkaido, earthquake, Kagoshima flood, Hachinohe earthquake, Niigata earthquake, Nasu flood and the mother of them allthe Kobe earthquake sparked my memory with scenes of unforgettable damage to property and human souls.
Having a disaster team in Mozambique at the terrible flooding at the same time left our team stretched pretty thin, but an urgent e-mail message to our volunteer members elicited an immediate response. Just a few hours later, the first team, loaded down with supplies, boarded the night train for Hokkaido.
As we prepared to board the train, we were informed that we could go only part of the way and we would have to find our own way as the tracks had been damaged. First thing in the morning we arrived at Hakodate, as far as the train could go. Now to move all the supplies- including blankets, instant food, water, canned food, milk, rice-to another train. It soon became a group effort as the train conductor and other workers helped move the supplies and eased the job.
We all piled aboard, supplies in tow, the absolute last train at the last station open, Oshamambe, Hokkaido. There, we faced another nightmare moving the supplies up and down stairs, again with the kind help of the JR staff and passersby, we loaded our bundles onto a vehicle to go to the soon-to-be-deserted area.
A stop by the city hall to arrange special permission to cross police lines and we were off. As we neared the final checkpoint, security looked tight. We stopped to talk to the police manning the checkpoint and discovered to our shock that there had just been another explosion and, permission or no permission, nobody was going to cross the line!
Now what to do! The only other alternative to the 15-minute trip to the Disaster Center, hub of the relief operations in Date City, was an 11-hour train trip around the mountain. Despite our pleas and demands, nobody was going to pass. Even though we had permission, it was issued before the explosion. There was nothing to be done.
Resigned to the inevitable, we returned to the station, repeated all our efforts moving the supplies, then began the long, torturous trip around.
Literally 11 hours later, we finally arrived at the Disaster Center. A bit of encouragement? The cities of Kobe and Shimabara had sent official communication to the city of Date introducing our Japan Emergency Team, telling them of our efforts in their disaster and requesting utmost assistance in our operations. After a quick introduction to the city officials, we delivered the supplies we had brought and checked out our new office. Only then, did we head to the Emergency Shelter to get some sleep.
Having worked at every domestic disaster in Japan over the past 10 years, I have spent a total of more than six months in such emergency shelters, usually set up in gymnasiums, schools or churches. But this one was amazing! Nearly 400 people crowded into a local gym! The biggest problem after the cold -remember it is Hokkaido!-was surely the unbelievably annoying buzz of snoring from 400 temporary homeless people crowded into one big room! We quickly found a place in a corner; fellow evacuees brought over blankets and we were set for the night.
Early the next morning, Operation Usuzan was in business and we began, as we always do in such situations, to set up telephone and computer systems, find a local partner and begin direct operations. A look outside the window and we found our partner -a church literally across the street from the Disaster Center. A quick visit with the pastor (who knew us well), some prayers together and we had an address to which to send emergency supplies as well as a local guide and staff.
More fun! The other pastor in the town just happened to be a former student of my dear Dad and said, "Ken-chan, you sure have grown since I last saw you when you were four!" By then the rest of the team was in control at the Disaster Center, handling volunteers, setting up information on each emergency shelter, receiving incoming disaster supplies.
Team members with time spent in Turkey, Kosovo, and Shimabara had a wealth of hard-earned experience to share with the flustered government officials trying to cope with the situation. I am beginning this from Date where the team has been since Mar. 31 and, while things have calmed down, the situation remains quite serious.
Nearly 8,000 people are still unable to return to their homes; our work today and yesterday included preparations for moving nearly 1,000 people to new shelters, preparing food to give out three times a day, sorting and labeling disaster supplies ranging from food to clothing and working at long-range plans.
The Japan Emergency Team began its mission in 1989 when 38 students from Chuo University volunteered to assist with the San Francisco Earthquake, thus becoming the first non-government overseas disaster operation from Japan.
It was a dark, dreary day when I had to give a speech to the assembled group of 120 students. I was very discouraged and trying to think of a way to breathe some life into an otherwise predictable speech. I mentioned to my hosts that I would like to ask if any of the students might be interested in going to San Francisco to help out: The administrators panicked! An official said,- "Ken-san, you can't do that! You know students these days are so self-centered, uncaring to start with.