15 Mar 2011

Tsunami: rescuers reach ‘desolate’ town of Ofunato

Chief Correspondent

British aid workers have reached the remote tsunami hit Japanese town of Ofunato, which Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson describes as “desolation, almost beyond words.”

There is desolation in Ofunato today, almost beyond words. The Red Cross says the damage is as bad as it has ever seen.

Medecins sans Frontieres say there is a major job to do.

In Ofunato itself a British rescue worker told Japanese TV: “From what I see here – this is going to be a long job. A very long job.”

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson blogged: “Ofunato, this afternoon. Into its industrial quarter we wandered. Gooey silt, broken glass and the slime of rotten fish underfoot.

“Above the splintered fish factory hundreds of gulls, crows, buzzards scream and wheel about; we’ve imposed, broken up this sudden feast of fetid tuna lying in the slime.

“We are the only people around this desolation of warehousing and factories, ripped, splintered, spilled by the tsunami’s passing. A ragged Japanese flag is torn among the debris.

“It is tradition in Japan to play music at 5pm to let local children know that it’s home time. Here, they play “Yesterday”, from some distant, undamaged speaker, as we stand in the utter desolation of the town’s former industry.”

The Channel 4 News team arrived in Ofunato on the same day as British specialist rescuers. A search and rescue team organised by the Department for International Development (DfID) is working from its base 20km outside Ofunato.

The group, made up of 63 UK fire service search and rescue specialists, two rescue dogs and a medical support team, are working alongside American counterparts and co-ordinate their operation with local teams.

Meanwhile, 12 Britons and two New Zealanders from the International Rescue Corps (IRC) are in place to assist in the humanitarian effort. The multi-skilled team, whose British members are drawn from across the UK, will be put to use as Japanese authorities see fit, a spokesman for the IRC said.

Our friends in Ofunato

My wife and I taught English in Ofunato from 2005 to 2007, writes Dan Vicuna.

We last visited about a year ago while I was studying abroad in Tokyo during my final semester of law school.

During that visit, we were telling a Japanese friend our worries about my ability to find a job in a rough economy and about where we would settle. Our friend responded by saying: "If you ever lose your way, come back to Ofunato."

It was such a sweet sentiment that was representative of the incredible generosity the people of Ofunato showed us during our time there. I arrived with very limited Japanese ability and quickly discovered that I needed assistance to complete the simplest tasks. Almost every person I encountered responded to my difficulties with patience and a sincere desire to help. People welcomed us into their homes and embraced us as members of the community. That commitment to community came through in Alex Thomson's report - despite the devastation - and is no surprise to me.

I did not know Mr Tashiro well, but I was thrilled to see that he was safe because he was one of those many people who always offered a smile, a friendly chat despite our language differences, and a helping hand.

The last time I saw him was when our friend overslept and forgot to pick us up when we arrived from Tokyo last year. Mr Tashiro was walking his dog as always and didn't hesitate to give us a ride to where we needed to go.

I have also been thinking about our friend's invitation to return to Ofunato during the last several days because I realized that I just assumed that my wife and I would one day take our family to Japan.

We would show them where we lived, introduce them to our old friends, and take them to our favorite places. We would arrive on the overnight bus and see Mr Tashiro walking his dog, go to our regular ramen shop, and run into a lot of familiar faces. We would laugh with the members of our adult English class about the UCLA cheers and the off-colour phrases that we taught them.

I imagined that the city might look a bit different and that we would probably lose touch with some friends with the passage of time, but I never could have imagined that entire swathes of the city would be washed away and that the wonderful people who lived and worked there would be taken with such cruel suddenness.

News of friends has trickled in very slowly and has been all good so far. Nonetheless, I am afraid that not all of it will be.

My heart breaks for the people who were my neighbours and my friends. Nobody can predict with certainty what will become of the cities along Iwate's coast. Nonetheless, if the residents of those cities bring the same compassion and decency to the task of caring for each other and rebuilding that they showed to me and my wife, I would certainly not bet against them.

International disaster relief charity ShelterBox has also dispatched a team to Sendai, near the epicentre of Friday’s massive earthquake, where they are assessing the need for emergency shelter.

An initial shipment of 200 of the charity’s boxes, which would provide shelter for 2,000 people, is on its way from the UK and a further 5,000 boxes are on stand-by. Each box contains a large tent for an extended family, a tool kit, blankets and water purification equipment.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has said there are “severe concerns” about Britons still missing in Japan after the disaster. Around 17,000 UK nationals are known to have been in Japan at the time the catastrophic quake struck, and fears remain that some of them may be among the tens of thousands believed killed.

The Foreign Office‘s emergency helpline has been contacted by around 4,700 worried relatives and friends seeking news of loved ones. Concerned friends and relatives of British nationals should contact the Foreign Office on the special number 020 7008 0000.