I used to live out in Japan and have a friend in Sendai who was caught up in the mind-blowing destruction caused by last week's earthquake. When she got in touch to let me know she was safe, she pointed me in the direction of Aika and Jesse Ortiz. These guys have gone out of their way over the last few days to support the relief effort, driving back and forth across the disaster fields collecting and redistributing goods where they're needed most. Their efforts have been startling and humbling, so you should visit the Facebook page they set up immediately and donate. I just had a chat with Aika, she told me a bit about what she's been experiencing on the ground, and shared these incredible photos of life after the tsunami.
Jesse has just got back from a trip to Minamisanriku, the beach side town completely swept away where more than 10,000 people are still missing, and where many of these pictures come from. A local survivor asked Jesse if he thought the town would ever be re-built. Jesse replied "I hope it does," to which came the response: "No one will ever build here again.”
Here are the Japanese military assessing the damage and scouting the wreckage for survivors.
Akia was working in a kindergarten in East Sendai when the quake hit. “We all got under the tables when the ground started shaking," she said, "but it got so strong I was sure the building was going to fall on top of us. So I instructed the kids to make a run for outside. Because I work at a day care facility, there were about twenty sleeping one and two year old babies that we needed to get outside too. None of them had socks on and only thin little PJs, so I held onto two of them as I squatted on the ground to keep them warm and protect them.”
“After the quake we had plenty of gas and supplies, as did families we know slightly further away in Yamagata. So, we started going back and forth getting what we could from those with stuff to give, and redistributing it to those in need. We've been going non-stop on three to five hours sleep a night. Our team is myself, my husband and his family.”
“Walking or driving through the city, damage is everywhere. Seeing a collapsed home, a broken pavement or shattered windows seems as normal as the sun rising.”
“Every night I'm sleepless. There is no such thing as drifting off to sleep. My mind is full of images of terror. The only sleep we get is when our body literally shuts us down from exhaustion. By 6:00pm everything is dark and quiet and the only thing going through my head is what can we do to help the people who are hungry, cold, and who aren't lying in a bed tonight.”
When Aika visited one shelter, a couple offered her a cigarette and they started to talk. They explained that the only possessions they had left were the clothes on their back. They lost their home, cars, and even their friends, but they still had enough faith in life to give the camera a thumbs up.
In fact, the Japanese positive mental attitude has been widespread. Here are another couple Jesse and Aika picked up, who were walking home from Sendai airport. They had already walked for six hours before they were driven home. They were on the third floor of the airport when it hit, and had spent a few days carrying dead bodies from the roof.
It's going to take Japan a long, long time to come to terms with all this, but the early signs are of people clubbing together to tackle the tragedy. When I used to live in Japan I was taken for earthquake preparation training almost once a month. At the time I thought it was excessive, but I guess all those rehearsals are now paying off.
WORDS: ALEX HOBAN
PHOTOS: JESSE ORTIZ, AIKA ORTIZ and ERWIN ORTIZ