11 March was supposed to be just another day for Michiko Matsudate. As the 62-year old was picking up her granddaughter from nursery school, one of the largest earthquakes in history struck off the coast of Japan and changed her life forever.
“I came back to my house right as the tsunami was coming. I saw my husband but was unable to get to him,” she said. “I saw his face.”
Six months later, the pain is still fresh. Matsudate paused to wipe away tears before continuing. “I know my husband wanted us to escape instead of trying to help him. It was the last time that I saw him. It was a gigantic black wave.”
Survivors now housed in temporary shelters
Matsudate and about 90 other families now live in rows of white, pre-fabricated shelters in a settlement in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture, part of the tens of thousands of shelters grouped throughout the region.
A team of World Vision staff and local volunteers recently visited Matsudate’s community to construct a series of park benches and tables. Thirty sets of the benches and tables are being provided to temporary housing settlements throughout Miyako City as part of a strategic effort by World Vision to build cohesion among these new communities.
“Thirty to forty percent of those affected are over the age of 65,” said Mitsuko Sobata, communications officer for World Vision Japan. “World Vision encourages the elderly to build their own community, to mobilize themselves. They’ll be in temporary shelters for at least two years. In past disaster responses, elderly people have died in their shelters and no one has even realized it. Building community areas helps because it gives people a place to gather and get to know each other.”
By bringing people together they will start to watch out for each other and check in on one another, Sobata said. It also makes resolving community issues easier when people have struck up personal relationships.
At this settlement in Miyako City, there is a common room where people can meet, but up to now there has been nowhere to go outside. “When the temperature is high, it is hard for elderly people to stay in the shelter,” Matsudate said.
Future uncertain, but hope starting to return
“Many people say they would like to go back to their hometowns, but there are no jobs and no homes there,” Mitsuko Sobata said.
Toshi Ona, 71, has adapted well to living in her temporary shelter. “If it’s sunny, we go to the farm,” she said, referring to the land she rented after the earthquake where she grows potatoes, carrots and soybeans for edamame. “The benches will be good for us because we can chat and actually see each other’s faces. I can bring the edamame for friends,” she said with a smile.
“I came to this camp at the end of May,” Matsudate said. “I am living with my daughter and grandchildren. My son and his family also live in the camp.”
“I’m so fortunate I could survive,” she added. “I can’t forget what happened to my husband, but I have to move forward.”