We are back to normal
AOMORI, Japan – A seagull swoops overhead in the blue sky as local fisherman and a smattering of tourists bustle about the clean and orderly Hachinohe Harbor. Store owners are open for business and greet visitors with a smile.
It’s a pleasant and calm day in this seaside town. Optimism fills the air.
“It’ll be really nice to show how clean Hachinohe Harbor is now to those who contributed to our recovery,” says Houmi Kawamukai, a captain of the fishing boat who was one of thousands in the area devastated by the deadly Tsunami triggered by the 9.0 earthquake that shook the nation March 11, 2011.
“We are back to normal, and we want people to come back and see the beauty of Hachinohe,” Kawamukai says.
Hachinohe and its fishing industry were turned upside down by the giant waves. But with determination - and an assist from the U.S. military community – the area has righted itself.
Two days after the earthquake and tsunami, U.S. military members from nearby Misawa Air Base and beyond arrived to lend a hand as part of Operation Tomodachi. But the military community in Misawa wanted to do more. Military, civilians, Japanese national employees and family members all wanted to be part of the cleanup.
“It was very cold and snowing when we (17 Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel from Security Hill in Misawa Air Bazse) arrived at the Suisan Kaikan (community center) on March 16, 2011.” said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Burch, who became the community coordinator for Misawa Helps, an organization the Misawa military community formed to help relief efforts in Hachinohe and other stricken areas.
“While driving through the area, the windows and doors of local homes and businesses were either broken or missing,” he recalled. “Cars and large boats were lying on their sides in the streets, on sidewalks, etc. The streets were covered in ankle-deep sludge and there was a strong smell of diesel and gasoline.”
The Misawa Helps clean-up effort lasted more than a year, with more than 2,600 people volunteering for a total of more than 40,000 hours, Misawa officials said.
Now and then
In June, I visited Hachinohe and the surrounding area in hopes of telling our readers how the place has recovered. I brought the Stars and Stripes Operation Tomodachi: The Great East Japan Earthquake magazine to compare photos from it with how the area looks now.
At the Hachinohe Fish Market, locals gathered around to view copies of magazine. I could tell the photos of the destruction brought back painful memories. They told me how miserable the area was after the earthquake and how much they appreciated the relief effort by U.S. military and other volunteers.
Later that day, I drove to the Hachinohe Harbor area and met up with Kawamukai, the fishing boat captain, who was able to take me to the exact location where a photo was taken that appears in the magazine.
He took me to a street and explained the area. It was clean and all the local businesses were operating normally. I just couldn’t believe it was the same area from the photo. I think Kawamukai had the same feeling.
“On that day of the earthquake,” Kawamukai explained, “I heard the Tsunami warning and that it was headed to Hachinohe Harbor. So, I rushed to my boat and drove miles out into the ocean to stay away from Tsunami.
“By the time the Tsunami reached the area, it’s funny, but I couldn’t feel it,” he said. “I ended up staying overnight (floating in my boat) in case another Tsunami hit. Usually I see the city lights from the boat when I’m out there, but I couldn’t see anything on that night.
“It was completely dark and I had no idea what was going on there. The next day, I came back into harbor and saw the devastation … It was really rough.”
On March 11, 2012, Burch and his wife went to a ceremony to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami near Hachinohe Harbor. On the way to the ceremony, they had lunch at the Ushio Cafeteria, located in the harbor.
The couple knew the cafeteria well. After the tsunami, they helped remove sludge from floors, pull all of the heavily damaged refrigerators and freezers and water-logged mats from the building, as well as sort and clean anything that could be salvaged.
During that lunch on March 11, 2012, they happened to meet Kazumasa Takeno, who was in charge of the Suisan Kaikan, the community center that served as operations center for the recovery effort. Takeno recognized Burch and his wife and took them on a tour of the building.
“When we went to the observation tour, he pulled some notes from his pocket,” said Burch, explaining that Takeno said he had briefed his staff that morning and reminded them to remember all of the people from Misawa Air Base who helped in the recovery efforts.
“One week later he sent a personal letter to my wife and I, again thanking not only us but all of the people from the Misawa Air Base community who assisted… with the clean-up efforts. This was a life-changing and very humbling experience. I feel the relationship between the base and local citizens of eastern Japan are as strong as it has ever been.”