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There To Help

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“From the very beginning I wanted to be there. I wanted to help,” says Dede Shine, director of international admissions at Ohio Northern University.

The “there” she is referring to is Japan after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated the coastal landscape of the northern part of the island nation. Nearly one year ago, Shine was up late making some last-minute preparations for an upcoming trip to Asia, which would include stops in South Korea, China and Japan, when she noticed comments on Facebook from a Japanese ONU student about an earthquake. She stayed up until 4 a.m. following the news on social networks.

“The next morning when I woke up, I learned about the tsunami and it was really upsetting to me,” she says. “I have a lot of friends in Japan, even going back to my childhood. So it wasn’t just my work connections, but people I have known most of my life. And so to wake up and see the reports of the tsunami and to hear of the towns that were washed away was very difficult.”

Although Shine did travel to South Korea and China as scheduled, she was initially banned from traveling to Japan due to concerns over radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. However, after 10 days things had stabilized enough for her to try again. The night she was going to buy her ticket, a strong aftershock hit and a friend in Japan asked her not to come.

“I had very strong feelings to be there. I wanted to understand what was happening on a personal level,” says Shine. “But I didn’t go, and I ended up regretting it because there weren’t any more significant aftershocks after that one.”

Last October, Shine was finally able to go Japan and help with the recovery efforts. As a volunteer with the aid group All Hands, she spent three life-changing days in the Tohoku region where she took these photographs.

I volunteered with a group called All Hands, which was one of the first groups in Japan after the tsunami. I was with other Americans, Japanese, Europeans and Canadians and got all of their stories and reasons for coming over there. For me, that was one of the great lessons of this experience.

I met a lot of young people who weren’t sure what they wanted to do with their lives, who just packed up and went to Japan to volunteer.

I arrived in Sendai where we took a bus north to Ofunato. Amazingly, the bus ride from Sendai to maybe five miles from where I was going, was all beautiful farmland and pastures. It was gorgeous. And then I start wondering what I’m going to see. I see these beautiful farm houses with the tile roofs and I’m paying such close attention because I’m waiting for some kind of sign of the destruction. And then there is a turn in the road and all of a sudden the world opens up to complete disaster.

This is where I first got a sense of how devastating it was. And this is where I just couldn’t hold my emotions back, because I was seeing it for the first time in person. This was a house. Four people lost their lives in it. All that’s left is the foundation. We don’t know for sure how many people died in this town. The water was 30 feet here.

When we arrived we started digging drainage ditches. We were in the last community that needed cleaned out. Basically, we were cleaning out debris from the tsunami and it was amazing to see what was in them. They were full of pieces of the tile roofs that I had admired on the bus ride.

Then we started finding personal effects--bowls, bottles, name tags, bingo cards--all of these pieces of peoples’ lives. And we don’t know what happened to these people.

The people I met were amazing. This man lives in Canada and he made many trips to Japan over the summer to help. He filled me in on so much about Japan and what things were like in the summer. He told me that when he was clearing drainage ditches in another town in May, the townspeople who had survived came and brought the volunteers food and thanked them for clearing the ditches because it meant that the fireflies would come. Fireflies are a sign of hope to them.

Things that had crossed my mind when all of this was unfolding was how Japan was going to deal with all of the displaced people, all of the debris, the economic recovery—how is this going to take place across such a huge region?  And so what I found out when I got there is that between April and October Japan had implemented an organizational plan to set the groundwork for the continued relief efforts. The first thing they did was organize the debris.

They did a remarkable job. They put everything in piles. You could see piles of cars, piles of wood, appliances—everything was categorized by type. They systematically organized everything for the next phase of the clean up.

This was one of the more amazing sights.

After digging ditches, I helped gut a house so that it could be rebuilt. This house was thought to be high enough, but the water kept rising and eventually filled the first floor.

Here's our team with the owner. One guy was really funny. He would sing while we worked and one day he told me that five months before no one would have been singing. Even in June they hadn’t gotten to the point where they could laugh or sing. Everything was far too somber.

Here is a sign thanking volunteers. The people were so incredible and so appreciative that so many people from all over the world came to their aid.