Part 4 – The Devastation

Part 4 – The Devastation

I arrived into the house that Kinship Circle rented in Sendai.  Sendai is a city which has a port that was devastated, also.  We were about 40 minutes away from there, and about an hour and a half away from the nuclear power plant.

I met up with my team which consisted of Bonnie Morrison, Incident Commander, Ginny Striewig, both from the US, Lindsay Davidson, Jackie Emard, Canadians, and Kate O’Callaghan, an Irish woman living in Okinawa (the southernmost island of Japan) for some 18 years.  All amazing people with different personalities coming together for one common goal!

The KC Team - Lindsay, Ginny, Jackie, Kate, and Lexie

Most mornings were spent trying to get coordinating and figuring out which team was assigned to which tasks.  It was okay with two cars, but after returning our car to JEARS, we were down to one car.  With plans changing last minute, trying to find donors, drivers, calling shelters, we were lucky to get out of the house around noon.  The teams were divided between those volunteering to go into the radiation zone (Lindsay, Ginny, and myself), and those who were not (Jackie and Kate).

We had one more team member to pick up, Rachel Becknell, who was coming in from a boat into Sendai.  She’s an American living and working in Hokkaido, the Northern most island in Japan.

Rachel - the "peace" sign is a VERY Japanese thing to do for photos!

Up to this time, I was the driver.  I had all team members reminding me to stay on the left side of the road.  But of course, it does take getting used to, so I did have a few little snafu’s.  The first where I ran over the curb just HAD to be right in front of our house where the rest of the team just HAD to have happened to be looking out the window at the very same time…of course!  After my side mirror was knocked by my getting too close to a side barrier, Rachel couldn’t take it anymore and politely insisted she drive.  I was only too happy to let her do the driving.  I was then moved to the navigating seat with maps in Japanese.  Did I mention I only have a reading capability as that of a second grader in Japanese?  I realized when you are in a job that you may not be too confident in, you just have to wing it.  And wing it I did!  Looking back, my whole trip was flying on wings!

When we drove out to the port to pick Rachel up, we saw our first sight of the devastation.  The port area was completely wiped out, but work had been going on and roads were cleared.  Cars were tossed like they were just little toys, some still laying as they landed, trucks smashed in, buildings wiped.  It was unbelievable.  We were still in the city where we would see occasional earthquake damage, but to see the levels of the devastation change so drastically by a different natural calamity was very bizarre.  When we got to the Port where she was to arrive, the building was only partially repaired…just enough to have business flowing.

We headed for Minami Soma, an area right outside the 20 km restricted zone.  As we got closer to the coast, the landscape changed so drastically.  We couldn’t believe our eyes. The devastation showed the sheer force with which the tsunami had so easily and effortlessly taken over the whole coast of Japan.  The thought of being faced with such a powerful destructive force was unfathomable…and utterly terrifying.  I felt the tears start to stream down my face.

We got off the main road to get a closer look at the devastation.  The roads were there, but nothing else.  How would anyone know where anything used to be?  Everything was flattened.  I put on my mask and went out to get a closer look.  Amongst the debris on the ground were toys, shoes, house décor, and even a purse.  I tried to imagine its owners…how they treasured each and every item.  I knew that these items didn’t come from this area…how far were they carried through the waves of the tsunami…swirling through the debris until it landed here?


I found this ceramic dog decoration standing upright amidst the debris. I thought it was quite ironic as I was here to help the animals...was this a sign?

I found a basket with both sides of the shoes together inside…how did it manage to stay together through a tsunami?  I felt guilty having such mundane thoughts going through my head as I stood amongst the debris…so many people and animals lost their lives, their possessions, and this is what I’m wondering about?  Or was it a way to lessen the pain?  Maybe it was  self-preservation to think such mundane thoughts instead of imagining the horrors they felt that day.

Standing there and looking around, I felt shell-shocked.  I was in total disbelief. There was nothing I could do but to say a silent prayer.

We noticed a young Japanese woman arrive alone and step outside her car and look around.  Was she from here?  What was going on through her head?  My heart broke for her…she was probably here trying to look for small bits of her life…or her family’s?

We got back in the car to get back to work.  The Japanese Army were out in full force trying to clear all the debris…what an overwhelming job that is.

As we drove, one of the things that struck me was you could see exactly where the tsunami ended its destruction.  Right next to it would be houses untouched.  What went through these people’s heads?  And what would go through the minds of those who’s houses were totally lost just because they were merely a few feet closer to the coast?

We saw boats tossed on the land, houses that actually managed to make it through the waves…it was like a dream where nothing really makes sense.  It’s hard to tell how far in the tsunami came in…I don’t know where the coast started or ended.  Strangely, on the other side would be a town completely intact.  Everything was so surreal.  We had now seen the results of the two disasters…the earthquake and the tsunami.  We got back in the car to drive down closer to the third…the radiation.





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Part 3 – Koro Goes Home!

Part 3 – Koro Goes Home!

We wound around the small streets in the mountains of the countryside where a voluntary evacuation was in place, passing Sakura Trees (cherry blossom trees) that were in full bloom and adding so much beauty to an already beautiful landscape.  I have never before seen so many different species of cherry blossom trees, nor any as large as they were here.  It just didn’t seem possible that this area would be considered ‘dangerous’. Tim would read out the levels as we passed through and although the levels wouldn’t be high in some areas, it was the amount of time spent exposed to those levels that was the danger.  The beauty of the landscape was again, a contrast to what lay on the other side of the mountains.

As we headed to Minami Soma, we were blocked from roads that were damaged and impassable.  This would add on another 1 ½ hours to our already long trip to try to get to Koro’s home…and we were already running late.  We would write down locations and the animals’ health conditions when we would see animals roaming for possible rescues later.

Tim amazed me at how efficient he was with his navigating…intimidating for me to know that I would have to be doing this without him soon.  Finding places on addresses alone is NOT the easiest thing to do in Japan.  But Tim managed to drive straight up to Koro’s house…to a waiting family!

As transporters, we usually have only a very brief story on the animals.  The daughter relayed to us that her mother had decided to move back to her house (outside of the 20 km zone) and was lonely so asked Animal Friends Niigata (AFN), where Koro was being cared for, to please bring him back.

I think Koro was still a bit freaked out and didn’t know what was happening…and then it dawned on him that he was home and here was his family!!  I watched as the old woman wiped a tear away and it hit me at that time how much love she has for Koro.  The Japanese are very stoic people and I knew I had witnessed something that was impossible to hide.  What a thrill to be able to be part of this reunion!

Koro jumped with joy and couldn’t contain his excitement!  His mother brought him back to his doghouse with an extra helping of food and water as she welcomed him home!  Her daughter tried to greet him, but he was just too excited!

Then I saw something incredible happen…in a span of minutes, now tied to his post outside, a complete change of personality occurred and there he stood tall and proud barking at me…he was back at home doing his job!  Although I wanted to go hug him, I stood back as if I was intimidated to give him back his dignity…but don’t tell him that!  I couldn’t believe this was the same dog that we just spent 4 ½ hours with!  What a thrill!

I realized I have more judgments that I would care to admit to.  I always felt that dogs should be able to live in a house and not tied outside within a limited amount of space exposed to the harsh elements.  After meeting Koro and his family, I realized that his doghouse and his post was what gave him the most comfort, and that his family loved him as much as I love my animals…just different living conditions and different outlook.  He’s not always tied…he goes for his walks and gets to enjoy sniffing every other dogs scents and get a change of scenery…all with his family nearby for him to protect and also feel secure with.  Thanks, Koro-chan!  You taught me so much!

As I basked in the glory of Koro’s reunion, Tim snapped me out of my reverie with another job we had to do…another contrast…we were to pick up the neighbor’s dog to take back to AFN with us as the owners were not either able to care for him or could not take him with them…I’m assuming it was going to be another temporary stay as was Koro’s case, but we were not told the story and I didn’t feel it was my place to ask.

Many ‘surrender’ their animals to JEARS for temporary care…and some for permanent care in finding another home for them.  I quickly realized there was absolutely no room for judgments for the people who had to make the hard, unbearable choice to do what they have to for the best of not only themselves, but for their animals, too.  I know I could always assume that I would never give up my animals, but then, I’ve never been directly affected by a triple disaster and who knows if that finding another home for them would be the kindest thing you could do for them?  I hope I never find out.

As I took the dog for a walk, I saw a car drive up and a man come out and look at me.  I realized this was the father who had driven home to say his “goodbye” to him.  We loaded the dog (I didn’t get his name) onto the car and let the mother and father spend their few minutes alone together.

My heart broke.  Just a few minutes ago, my heart was leaping with joy…and now this.  I knew the parents knew their dog would be okay and that they would see him again, but heartbreaking nonetheless, as no one knows exactly how much time it would be before they see each other again.

So, we said our farewells and started back.  We stopped by at a convenience store and as Tim was getting ready for his long trip back (he was dropping me off at a nearby train station so that I could get to our rental home where we were staying in Sendai with Kinship Circle), I called to check in with my Incident Commander and as we stood speaking, the ground beneath me started rolling gently…a reminder of where I was.


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Part 2 – Japan…

My first day there was spent with the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), an organization temporarily set up in Niigata.   JEARS is a coalition of three animal groups that are run by foreigners and Japanese that got together immediately after the earthquake and were one of the first on the ground to help in animal rescue.  (The three groups are Animal Friends Niigata (AFN), HEART – Tokushima, and Japan Cat Network).  Their postings on Facebook were quickly caught on by many concerned animal lovers, myself included.

Kinship Circle works with JEARS in its efforts which is why I was there.  The Kinship team had just moved to Sendai a day earlier to be closer to the disaster area…but I was still 4 ½ hours from them.  The reason that JEARS is so far away from the disaster area is to be closer to the no-kill animal shelter, Animal Friends Niigata.

I watched as Susan Roberts (of Japan Cat Network), Selena Hoy, and Tim Exley worked together as a team efficiently and professionally.  I was very impressed and proud to be part of this network.

The second day, Tim had to do a “drop off” and “pick up” and took me along to show me the ropes.  This was the best training and introduction to the work I would be doing.

Dogs going for a walk at Animal Friends Niigata animal shelter

He took me to Animal Friends Niigata to pick up Koro, who was going home.  Koro had his tail stuck tightly between his legs, panting, and would jump whenever he was touched.  This poor guy had no idea what was going on.  We loaded him up on the van and headed out to the disaster area 4 ½ hours away.

Koro scared and confused.

Tim showed me the ways of the road as I would be one of the drivers for our team later.  I hadn’t driven in Japan for over 20 years…and saying to myself “stay on the left, stay on the left” became my mantra while driving there.  He used his iPhone for navigation, along with a GPS system that couldn’t be counted on, and a map in kanji.  Unfortunately, especially for me, there are no local road maps in English.  I ended up using the maps in Kanji myself later, which I somehow managed and by the end of the trip, was very proud to have put that on to my list of challenges met during my trip!  Thank goodness I speak the language…not fluently, but very, very well.

He showed me how to use the Geiger counters and how to take the measurements.  He showed me the different “pockets” where radiation levels changed, and even how to talk with the border patrols that we ran into.  I must say that the police on the patrol were all very gracious and polite.  You could sense that they were appreciative of our efforts, but their jobs required them to keep all people out of the restricted areas for our safety.  They were always helpful in providing any information that they could.

Tim Exley, of JEARS, checks the radiation levels.

The government has closed off the area 20 km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.  People were allowed to return there to retrieve some articles and to feed their pets and farm animals for short spurts of time.  Then they suddenly closed it without any warning to the people who live there.  The animals were suddenly left without any food or water and forced to starve…many to a slow and horrendous death.

In Japan, there are no stray dogs as they are put down at the shelters if nobody claims them in 72 hours.  During disaster times, the rules are lifted.  I was told that government workers are shifted from one section to another meaning that someone who works for taxes may find themselves working in the government animal shelters next, and then go on to work at another department.  So, it’s pretty much the roll of a dice for the pets of whether there happens to be someone who appreciates animals or not working in the animal shelters.  This is why it was so critical to us to bring the animals to AFN even if it was 4 1/2 hours away.

The residents living just outside the 20 km restricted zone had seen an influx of animals, usually roaming in packs, right after the disaster.  They would see 30 to 40 dogs out looking for their families and for food.  Most dogs waited at home for their families to come back…and many are still there today…waiting.
















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Part I – Animal Rescue to the Japan Disaster Area

Just a note…

Although this is a photographic blog, I am posting my trip to the disaster area of Japan to aid in the rescue of the animals here. I have had incredible support in so many ways, whether they be in donations, help in looking after my family while I was gone, or prayers. I’d like to thank you all for your part in helping the animals and ultimately, the people who were affected by the horrific disaster in Japan.

Looking back, this trip has been one of many, many contrasts. Beauty and darkness, kindness and non-compassion, life and death…As the events unfolded and I opened myself up to so much pain and sadness, kindness and beauty were magnified tenfold. This is the point where you truly feel alive…not the numbness of everyday monotony when life gets too comfortable. It was from this frame of mind (heart) that in order to accomplish our mission, we had to build walls tall enough to see over, but keeping it small enough to stay within our perimeter to keep our focus on the needs of the animal friends we were there to help. I guess this is what saved our sanity there.

Getting there…

March 11, 2011…phone rings from my ex-husband, Tony. Was my TV on? Had I heard about the earthquake in Japan?

I don’t watch news on TV. Earthquakes in Japan are not headliners…except if they cause major damage. Once I turned on the TV, I couldn’t turn it off. For two weeks I watched all the images and videos that came out…maybe in a way to share in the pain of the Japanese people.

Flattened By The Tsunami

I grew up in Japan and spent 18 years of my life there. In my heart, I still consider it “home” so to see this happening there, it was literally hitting “home” for me. I did what everyone else did with donating what I could afford to help out. But I was feeling that it wasn’t enough. I followed Facebook diligently for any news and learned up on the nuclear power plants and the implications of its damages. Everyone I knew had helped in some way to help the people of Japan…whether it be donations, fundraisers, or prayers. It was overwhelmingly beautiful how the entire world came together to help a country in dire need.

As I am passionate about animals, my focus was on what was being done to help them, also. I knew everyone was helping the people. But not much focus was being done on the animals.

I looked around for different fundraisers that were popping up around the Napa Valley. I asked if I would be allotted a small table to raise funds for the animal rescue portion of a disaster. Lessons from Hurricane Katrina taught us that animal rescue needed to be integrated into the disaster relief systems.

After contacting a few fundraisers, I was turned down each time. Either they were full (understandably) or they only wanted to represent their own organizations and didn’t want to share the billing with another (!), or not even any response at all! The most disgusting response to my request to have a small table for raising funds for animal rescue was that they didn’t want “to confuse donors” of which organization they were contributing to. Are you kidding me?? Isn’t the whole reason for having these fundraisers to help one another? Or was this just an avenue for their public relations?

The one lesson the Japanese were teaching us in their handling of this triple disaster was the lesson of community and of sharing. There was very, very little looting, if at all. Everyone waited patiently in line for rationed necessities, everyone helped one another out in any way they could. Stores that were ripped open by the earthquake or tsunami were not raped of their contents as happens in other disasters in other countries. If anything at all, shouldn’t we be trying to learn something from the incredible behavior of the Japanese in the wake of such a horrendous disaster?

I have a very strong belief that there are no such things as coincidences. I reminded myself that the reasons these fundraisers were not coming through was to make way for something bigger and better. As frustrating as all the denials to my requests were, I have to thank them for helping fuel my anger as this only channeled me to surge forward in ways that I had no idea I was capable of.

I have a little post-it note stuck of an Arabic proverb on my computer that reads: “The person who really wants to do something finds a way, the other person finds an excuse.” I was tired of being the person with the excuses…and too pissed off to just sit by this time. Little did I know it would mean going to Japan myself.

I contacted Kinship Circle, an organization that deploys volunteers for disasters and they accepted my application!! Whoo hoooo! I was going to Japan to help rescue animals!! My heart burst with anticipation, pride, and gratitude! I would be able to meet and work alongside those people who I read about in the website who, in my eyes, are my heroes! Wow!!

Not surprisingly, all my plans moved forward without a hitch! I found myself standing in front of the All Nippon Airways with my overweight bag and two boxes of Tyvex protection suits with an airline attendant waiving any extra fees and not even a mention of them…only a thank you for my services!? This was to be the tone for my trip.

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