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So many volunteers to help

August 19, 2012


Volunteers flock to city in Fukushima after lifting of no-go zone designation



MINAMISOMA, Fukushima -- Ever since this city's no-go zone designation was lifted, volunteers from across the country have been flocking to help local residents reclaim their pre-disaster lives.

The no-entry designations for the Odaka and Haramachi districts of Minamisoma were lifted in April, a year after they went into effect. However, because basic infrastructure has yet to be rebuilt and decontamination work has not been completed, neither residents nor volunteers are permitted to stay overnight. Many of the approximately 4,000 households that were struck by the quake and tsunami remain untouched since the disasters.

Since mid-May, the city's reconstruction volunteer center has accepted volunteers -- to be dispatched to private homes -- on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and every day for the month of August. There were initial concerns that labor would be in short supply, but through July, some 150 to 200 volunteers showed up per week, and as for August, some weeks have seen over 300 volunteers. Sometimes volunteers have had to be turned away because there are too many of them.

At 9 a.m. one Friday, some 30 people dressed in work clothes gathered in front of the volunteer center. Most were company workers or retirees. Although radiation levels are measured at the homes where volunteer work is conducted to ensure safety, city officials call on volunteers to refrain from participating if they have concerns.

"Volunteer insurance does not cover the effects of radiation," a coordinator explained. Still, not one person left.

One group of about a dozen volunteers headed toward the Odaka district in several cars, whose license plates showed how far many of them had travelled; one 70-year-old man had even driven a small truck for two-and-a-half days from Miyazaki Prefecture. Many of the volunteers said they had never volunteered before the post-disaster recovery efforts.

The cars arrived at a 40-year-old house. The residents appeared to have left in haste immediately following the massive quake on March 11, 2011, as a pot was found still sitting on a low dining table in the living room, and plates were scattered about in the kitchen. The volunteers' task was to help round up the residents' valued possessions and get rid of things that were no longer needed.

Photo albums and furniture were carried out of the house, which was filled with a moldy odor. During breaks, the volunteers -- who had become close through their repeated trips to Minamisoma -- chatted warmly with one another. Sometimes they even meet up back in the Tokyo area.

Masataka Miyazaki, 38, from Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, spends most of his weekends in Minamisoma. He'd previously volunteered washing photos found in tsunami-hit areas, where he says some photos never made it back to their owners.

"People really appreciate it when you clean their homes and remove rubble for them, and it makes me happy to be able to play a part in the reconstruction," he said.

In gardens and fields, Masaru Shimada, 54, from the Saitama prefectural capital of Saitama, operated a grass mower. Saying he's "become attached to the area," he goes to Minamisoma almost every other week, and has found a family nearby to put him up in the evenings. His portable radiation dosimeter doesn't show any great increase in radiation levels. Sometimes, he even brings his eldest son, a second-year student in junior high school, to volunteer with him.

When work for the day ended at 3 p.m., the floors of the house were cleared of most of the items that covered them in the morning. Shimada said he gets a lump in his throat when he sees more and more homes cleaned up and finds residents returning to them.

"What I'm doing might just be for my self-satisfaction, but I want to be able to see the recovery through," he said.


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