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Activity Reports

5 months since the disaster – Volunteer Coordinator interview

August 15, 2011

Peace Boat staff member Kobayashi Shingo (30) entered Ishinomaki together with three other colleagues on March 17, 2011. For the past five months, he has been based there working daily to build the “circle of aid” linking governmental and civilian agencies and groups there. Kobayashi was involved in the launch of the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council (IDRAC), and has been the local coordinator between various volunteer groups, the local Social Welfare Council, the City Hall and the Self Defence Force.

In Ishinomaki, the police search for missing persons was continuing until yesterday. Even five months since the disaster, there are still around 900 people whose whereabouts are unknown. Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit areas by the tsunami. Please tell us what it was like when you first went there, only a few days after the disaster.

I left Tokyo on March 16. The information at the time was conflicting, and heading towards the affected areas in Tohoku, we weren’t even sure which roads were usable. Ueno Yoshinori and I travelled ahead via Niigata, and Yamamoto Takashi and Ueshima Yasuhiro left Tokyo a little later with many relief goods onboard. At that time, we hadn’t fully decided where we would head to. That evening, they heard that relief goods were not yet reaching Ishinomaki, and so decided to go there first. Actually, Yamamoto and Ueshima arrived ahead of us, and we joined them at the Ishinomaki City Hall.

The first thing that was necessary was to help deliver goods so that the survivors could get through each day. Of course the goods themselves were in short supply, but even more than that was a lack of people to help. The local administration and the Self Defence Force were active very early, however their deliveries had to be limited to larger evacuation shelters and so on. We felt that it was important to be able to reach individual survivors in further out places, and gain an understanding of the needs of the survivors in smaller shelters, still living in their own homes, and so on.

At that time, how many organisations other than Peace Boat were already in the area?

Other than the Self Defence Force, Fire Brigade, Police, and specialised humanitarian aid groups such as the Red Cross, there were barely any. On March 20, the first coordination meeting between NPOs was held at the Ishinomaki Senshu University (which later became IDRAC), however at that time there were around ten organisations present. Even just considering the distribution of relief supplies, as the local transportation systems were not functioning, even if goods reached the warehouses there were no vehicles or people to distribute them further than that. We decided that Peace Boat’s role would be to help bring as many pairs of hands to help – ie volunteers – and also to try to increase the number of groups coming up to help the relief efforts. We felt that it was extremely important to really deepen coordination and communication between the different groups involved in aid in Ishinomaki.

And after that, Peace Boat began to call for volunteers. On March 21 7 more people joined to prepare, and on March 26 the first group of 50 volunteers arrived in Ishinomaki. Could you tell us a little more about those activities?

As other staff were providing meals, cleaning or transporting goods, I was working to establish the volunteers receiving system. As part of that, I was allocated to support the Disaster Volunteer Centre set up by the Ishinomaki City Social Welfare Council (SWC) at the Ishinomaki Senshu University. The SWC staff were working incredibly hard within such a confusing situation to get the operations of the Volunteer Centre on track. Since the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake of 1995, individual volunteers in disaster situations are coordinated by Disaster Volunteer Centres set up by the SWC. However, in this case, the SWC buildings were greatly damaged by the tsunami, and many of the staff themselves were also affected. There simply weren’t enough people. And so, Peace Boat decided that I would work as full time support for the Disaster Volunteer Centre.

There were so many visitors at first. From morning to night, people came to the Volunteer Centre looking for information – relief organisations, individuals, media persons, and survivors themselves. At the third NPO/NGO coordination meeting, it was decided that I would hold the mobile telephone which received enquiries. From early in the morning until the middle of the night, my phone rang nonstop, with people asking, “I want to go and provide meals but what shelters are in need?”, “I would like to volunteer, but how do I get there?”, “what is the situation like there now?”

Even several days later, there was no sign that the situation would improve, and so the real operations of the SWC Volunteer Centre could not start – meaning that volunteers wouldn’t be able to come, even if they wanted to. At that time, what was locally needed the most was provision of hot meals, and at the same time, that was also what most relief organisations contacting us were able to provide. So, from there I started to gather information and coordinate the organisation of hot meals provision throughout Ishinomaki.

As well as being the contact point for relief organisations who came without previous notice, I was also answering the phones and also simultaneously coordinating the increasing number of requests for meals provision. I was also working as the Chair and minutes taker for the NPO/NGO coordination meetings, but it was quite full on.

Yes, at the time I remember that actually your name was listed as the official contact person by the SWC for coordination of meals provision, right?

Yes. At that time, I really didn’t have the capacity to think about that fully. We still didn’t have the full picture of the damage caused by the tsunami, or the situation of the survivors. All of the organisations present were desperately trying to gather information, including the number of survivors in each place, and which places food was still not reaching. So, we were informing organisations that wanted to start providing meals that they would need to be very flexible in this complicated situation, to be able to look after their own operations without having to rely on support from other groups, and then sending them to specific shelters etc after letting them know the location and approximate number of survivors there.

One of the things I really came to understand after coming to the area was that things such as, “someone else will do it”, or “technically, that should be done by …” just don’t apply in disaster affected areas. Of course it is important to allocate specific roles, however everyone has to have a sense of responsibility for doing things themselves, otherwise nothing will progress. And, through that sense of responsibility, the local community will also come to trust the outside aid organisations, too.

After that, the SWC became one of the first disaster centres to accept individual volunteers from outside the prefecture, and the NPO/NGO coordination meetings  became IDRAC. This new system of dividing the roles of individual volunteers to the SWC and group volunteers to the Council was unique, and is now referred to a the “Ishinomaki Model.” Considering that despite the large scale of the damage and of the city itself, and the huge amount of work to be done, do you think it can be said that the reception of volunteers in Ishinomaki has been a success?

Personally, as there is still so much left for volunteers to do, I don’t believe we are at the stage to be able to say whether it was a success or a failure. However, hearing the situation in other disaster affected areas, the model here in Ishinomaki is unique, and I believe that the exchange of information and communication between different organisations is going quite well. The City of Ishinomaki had already planned to have the disaster volunteer reception centre at the Ishinomaki Senshu University, and the presence of the SWC and Mr Ito of IDRAC, meant that the foundations to support such a model were in place. Of course different organisations and staff such as Yamamoto and myself were running around supporting coordination on the ground, but without such a local foundation the system would not have been realised. At the time of a disaster, you can really see the difference when there has been prior planning, and trained personnel in place.

What were you working on since IDRAC was launched?

In April and May, I was coordinating the provision of meals. The Self Defence Force was providing around 8,000 meals for the larger evacuation centres, and at the peak IDRAC was providing 10,000 – 20,000 meals per day. Peace Boat established a kitchen to make 1,000 – 2,000 meals daily, however as many other organisations were coming to Ishinomaki just for one day at a time to provide meals, it was like a puzzle to put together the locations and schedule. At the same time, we were also working to try to gather information about some affected areas which were not yet being reached. After the Golden Week holidays, the number of volunteers decreased, and the number of groups coming in just for one day at a time to provide meals also drastically fell. To be honest it was a very difficult time. In order to somehow contribute to providing a stable number of meals each day, Peace Boat decided to try to increase the numbers of meals we can make, and so started to prepare the Central Kitchen.

From there, as IDRAC began to play a role in the overall relief activities in Ishinomaki, I began to participate in meetings of the City’s disaster relief headquarters. We then started to have weekly meetings with the City Hall and the Self Defence Force, to coordinate food and material supplies. From there, we started to conduct projects in collaboration with the SDF, such as distributing relief goods or large cleaning efforts together. A link between the governmental and civic relief efforts was able to be made, as everyone shared the common goal of speeding up the recovery process as much as possible.

In Ishinomaki, we often see volunteers and local people working together, sweating together, greeting each other happily. Immediately after the disaster, there were many voices saying that volunteers would only get in the way, however that is hard to imagine now! From your own experiences, is there anything that left a particular impression in this regard?

Of course there are many difficult things, however there are countless episodes which have been so happy, or given us so much courage. One example was the concert given by guitarist Oshio Kotaro in the centre of town. His guitar performance is just amazing. Radio DJ Yamamoto Shoo was able to connect us to realise Mr Oshio’s concert. Shoo started a project together with friends  just after the earthquake to deliver radios, school equipment and so on to the affected areas, called the Radio Baton Project, and has come to Ishinomaki very often.

Shoo was able to introduce us, and the concert itself was held on June 10, I think. It was held at a clothing store called “Kameshichi” just 2 minutes’ walk from the Central Kitchen. Kameshichi was inundated by the tsunami, and the first floor had been covered in “hedro” tsunami sludge. It was one of the stores that Peace Boat volunteers worked very hard to clean up.

While of course there were many products that were destroyed, there were some that were able to be washed and recovered. Peace Boat became friends with the owner of Kameshichi, and so kindly offered to lend us the store as the concert venue. On the day, we let local residents know about the event, and volunteers were also able to join in and enjoy. Actually, one of the volunteers who was involved in cleaning up the Kameshichi store was SUGIZO of the band X-JAPAN, and he himself came to the concert that night. Even the owner of the shop was very surprised!

The concert was in such an at home atmosphere, and it felt like a family. I had been working to overcome differences between organisations active in Ishinomaki to all work together, and noticed that somehow along the way the distance between the volunteers and the locals also disappeared. It was really a moment that the circle of diverse support all connected together, irregardless of who was famous or not.

There are of course many other episodes, but I’ll share them next time!

The meeting for volunteer leaders held each night at Kozan.
And finally, could you let us know the challenges and goals for the steps ahead?

Actually, just the other day I went together with the Chair of IDRAC to deliver relief goods to Sanjo City, Niigata, which was severely damaged by the recent rain and floods.  After that, some organisations who are participating in the Council also went to Fukushima to investigate what can be done there. The town of Kaneyama was greatly affected by the rains and has an elderly population, and so they requested some support for setting up a volunteer centre, clearing mud and cleaning up. Several IDRAC member organisations travelled there, and yesterday actually 25 Peace Boat volunteers were working in Kaneyama. We often hear, especially from citizens of Ishinomaki, that “the next time a disaster happens somewhere else, we’ll also go to help.” A society that is able to deal well with natural disasters is one that is prepared and has a system to connect people together to support each other. That is something that we all have to think about together, between the adminstration, citizens and organisations in the area we live in.

The disaster which struck this May brought more sadness and suffering to Ishinomaki than can be expressed in words. As I am not a survivor myself I cannot even begin to measure how it must feel… But, I believe that all of our experiences in Ishinomaki will be necessary in creating a connected society which is ready to deal with disasters. Of course this goal is somewhat in the future considering the situation that we are still dealing with here in Ishinomaki, but I am not talking just about myself, but also all of the Peace Boat colleagues, the more than 5,000 volunteers, and the “family” here in Ishinomaki.

If everyone doesn’t just expect someone else to do things for them, but everyone pitches in to help out themselves, then something can be done. Well, actually I just got married myself, so I have to also make sure I pay attention to my own family so that I’m not left on my own though, heh!

Photos: Ueno Yoshinori