Today, on March 7th, 2014, 1091 days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Laureline Gatellier, a violinist and scientist originally from Bastogne, Belgium, talks about the snowball effect of volunteering work after a national catastrophe, and having the courage to take action when things around you fall apart.
Trang: Where were you on Friday March 11th, 2011 at 14:46pm when the earthquake hit and the tsunami struck?
Laureline: I remember clearly where I was and exactly what I was doing at that time. I was having a meeting with my boss on the thirteenth floor of this old building that was our office in Ochanomizu, in central Tokyo. As the earthquake hit, the ceiling began to crumble while the tables and chairs jostled around the room. I instantly looked at the window and thought our building would hit the surrounding structures because it seemed like we were swaying and shaking. I really thought our entire building was going to collapse. The quaking lasted several seconds, but it seemed so much longer. I didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until the big aftershocks of the earthquake hit and my colleagues showed me the scenes of the tsunami in the Pacific Ocean of the Tohoku coast on the screens of their cell phones. It was a very surreal moment. My workmates became very distressed. We didn’t know what to do. The employees who could return home were instructed to leave the office. I walked home since all trains, above and underground, had been stalled. The only means of transportation was our own two feet. As I made my way home, streets that were usually empty filled very quickly with crowds of people pouring out from underground and from the skyscrapers. The streets of Tokyo showed minimal structural damage except for some signs here and there like a broken water pipe.
T: Did the earthquake affect you and your surroundings immediately after it occurred?
L: I was living in Kita-ku, near Ikebukuro, in central Tokyo during that time. When I arrived home, I found a lot of chinaware lying on the floor smashed and the gas had stopped working. Except for these minor inconveniences, the earthquake did not damage our apartment building greatly since it was newly constructed. It was only in the days following the earthquake that the impact of the disaster hit us. With the nuclear accident unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor Plant, panic started to rise due to radiation leakage in the air and water, and the shortage of food and other essential items in the stores. The possibility of a massive explosion at the nuclear plant coupled with the hysteria from the international media coverage of the situation further fuelled this anxiety. My relatives in Belgium and family around the world begged me to leave Tokyo and fly out of Japan without delay.
T: Has your life changed since the tsunami?
L: My life has definitely changed since the earthquake! I have become more careful with the kinds of food I eat. I am concerned when I buy food from Fukushima and its surrounding prefectures, especially since I became pregnant. I am also much more cautious now when I view national and international news.
T: I understand that you and five other friends started NPO-Nadia as an immediate response to community needs in the aftermath of the earthquake. What had you witnessed that prompted you to get active and do something? I am intrigued as to what the conversations that you had with these five friends were about during this time?
L: You know, March in Japan is still very cold. The domestic news in Japan showed people in despair, men, women and children walking in the street under the snow and rain without wearing coats. This image gnawed at me and disturbed me. However, newscasters on television had requested the public to refrain to going Tohoku so as not to further stress what little of the infrastructure that had remained. I remember them saying something like, “Please don’t come because there is no transportation available. You will be a burden. All the hotels and accommodation are closed”. Maybe it had been a general message from the government to deter crowds from descending on Tohoku? At the same time, however, I had read on Facebook about one of my friends, a Canadian woman, who had gone to Tohoku with the Canadian TV news team as a logistic and an interpreter. I telephoned her and we spoke about the situation. I remember it to have been a very emotional conversation. She was determined to go to Tohoku and give assistance as she had been introduced to a volunteer center in Tagajo in Sendai. She was clear about what kind of help was needed, knew what to do and where to be of assistance.
This friend organized an expedition to Tohoku with two other women on Thursday March 24th, 2011. I was able to join my friend that following Saturday since my company wouldn’t allow me to take time off to go to a dangerous area immediately after the tsunami. So, fifteen days after the earthquake, together with two other male friends whom I met for the first time that day, I went to Tohoku in this car filled with underwear, toilet paper and nappies. We had a pass to go on the highway as it had been closed to cars due to the damages sustained during the earthquake. The owner of a love hotel in Bonita, Sendai, allowed us to stay at his premises as all other accommodation was closed. There was no hot water, but it was a warm place to sleep at night. These small inconveniences didn’t bother us as we were so motivated and wanted to help as much as we could. Seeing the areas that had been destroyed by the tsunami with our own eyes and smelling its aftermath was a huge shock! We were speechless and completely stunned!
That day, our group went to Tagajo Volunteer Center to offer our help. There were lots of chairs inside, but they were all empty. There were no volunteers at the center except for the five of us plus two teenagers from the affected areas. We felt directly confronted by the critical needs of the community and a visible lack of volunteers. At that time, gasoline shortage was a big problem. This had caused a lot of stress for our return trip to Tokyo, but we were committed to go back to Tohoku and help again.
Since I didn’t have my own car, I had planned to go back to Tohoku in the following weeks with these four friends. However, back in Tokyo, when I described the situation to other friends, we decided to make another trip to Tohoku with eight of us in a private car, staying at the same hotel and helping out at the same volunteer center. My other friends from the first trip coordinated another expedition the week after that, bringing another thirty friends with them. I went to Tohoku again the following weekend with a team of twenty volunteers in four cars. The snowball effect had started! Every weekend one or several of us would bring new volunteers. Then, more and more people began to contact us and offered their help.
T: I guess you had the beginnings of an organized body with aims and objectives…
L: Right, around May 2011, we gave ourselves the name Nadia and developed a homepage on the Internet to centralize the registrations. With so many volunteers traveling by car to coordinate, it became simpler to rent a bus for our expeditions. In early May, during Golden Week, more than one hundred volunteers joined us on our trip to Tohoku. People were happy to have found an organization that was still welcoming volunteers, as other groups may have had stricter regulations or were already overwhelmed with volunteer applications. You know, the Tohoku region was in need of dire assistance after having been destroyed by the tsunami, but in Tokyo, too, there was a community need. People here wanted to volunteer their time, their services and their skills, and to be of use after having witnessed such a huge tragedy so close to their home and workplace. With our number of volunteers increasing, and in order to gain more credibility so as to be able to attract funding from businesses and the community, we sought to become a non-profit organization (NPO) and in January 2012 became fully-registered. With this change in status, we began to receive significant financial support from corporations. People like Bryan Adams, the Canadian musician and singer, also donated to our efforts to assist Tohoku.
T: How often did you go to Tohoku and volunteer? What kind of tasks and activities were involved in this kind of work after such a devastating earthquake and tsunami?
L: Before each volunteer trip to Tohoku there were innumerable administrative tasks to finalize, such as, booking the bus, advertising, setting the registrations on the Internet, locating the jobs that needed to be done in the area like which houses, shops, temples, gardens or parks that had to be cleaned that weekend. There’d be events like barbeques at temporary housing venues that also needed to be planned. As for the actual expeditions, we usually left at 23:00 on Friday nights from Tokyo by bus and arrived in Ishinomaki around 5:00 the next morning. We’d sleep for one or two hours then split into workgroups for the day. Often, I’d coordinate and act as one of the leaders of a group with around six to eight volunteers. The workday usually concluded with visiting an onsen, a hot spring, and time to relax with the other volunteers. On Sundays, we would work from 8:30 till 13:00 then depart for Tokyo. On a regular weekend, we’d arrive back in Tokyo at around 21:00. Right after the earthquake, we went to Tohoku every week or at least twice a month, then it became once a month the following year. This year, it’s been about every six to eight weeks that we’d visit Ishinomaki to coordinate or participate in events. Since that very first trip two weeks after the tsunami that I had made to Tohoku, I would go back maybe once or twice a month, leading groups. I became pregnant in August 2012 but continued to make the trips until February 2013 right up to the beginning of the third trimester of my pregnancy.
T: Why had you decided to focus your efforts in Ishinomaki? I understand that it was one of the most damaged regions due to the earthquake, but had there been other reasons to work in that location specifically?
L: During our trips to Tohoku, we had always been searching for that one site where our support was most valuable and most needed. We thought that cities that were already well organized with functioning volunteer centers or smaller villages didn’t need groups of fifty volunteers to descend on them every week. We felt that we could be of the greatest help in those cities like Ishinomaki that had been most severely affected by the tsunami. This area had been so devastated that it was closed for several weeks to volunteers due to the huge death toll. We also thought that it would be most effective to concentrate our energy and efforts in places where the staffing of volunteer centers was most lacking. Our aim was to provide the same kind of support and assistance as volunteer centers did in other areas of Tohoku. Christine, our Canadian leader, had visited the destroyed areas on the coast where the tsunami hit, from the north to the south, and she confirmed that Ishinomaki was the region most in need. We felt that it made sense to locate ourselves in one place and provide ongoing help in the reconstruction of the area and see the place evolve.
T: I learned through my experience of doing community work that trust is a core issue. Without trust, it’s hard to get anywhere, especially in doing community work. How did the group make contact with the local community in Ishinomaki? How did you establish credibility as individual and as a group in order to be able to volunteer in these areas? How did you gain people’s trust?
L: The destruction was so immense that the work was there, the cleanup of the area had needed to be done. By going to the same place every week, we became a regular presence in the community so this enabled us to make connections and build trust with the local residents and the local officials. Entering and cleaning people’s private homes is stepping into an individual’s private space. Just in doing that we developed relationships with people and their families. I think that the act of us being present, cleaning up and doing the work week after week helped us create strong links with the locals. People would show their gratitude through kind words, in conversing with us and through simple gestures like sharing hot drinks with us. It was also important to us that NPO-Nadia provided a good experience for the volunteers. We took our responsibilities seriously as well as the safety and well-being of the volunteers who accompanied us each time. We were clear about explaining the risks of working in a hazardous environment to all the volunteers who worked with us.
T: Did you have any initial worries or fears when you first decided to volunteer?
L: The worries evolved with the situation. The first fear was radiation exposure since we had to go through Fukushima prefecture to get to Ishinomaki from Tokyo. However, for me, this was a minor concern in comparison with the difficulties that people in the tsunami-affected areas were facing. People lacked food, had no water, had lost their homes, and had no work. While radiation caused us anxiety, we were dealing with a situation where potential radiation contamination was not the first priority for basic survival. I personally avoided taking major risks. To appease my family’s worries, I decided not to volunteer in regions where radiation levels had been proven to be dangerously high. Rather than blindly listen to contradictory information in the news about radiation emission and contamination, we checked the levels of radiation in both Tokyo and in Ishinomaki and performed the measurements ourselves. When we found that the levels of radiation were similar in both places, it further increased my confidence in working as a volunteer in Tohoku.
Another fear was that the mud we were removing in the affected areas could have been toxic. Sustaining possible infections after handling rotting matter had also been a major concern. We addressed these issues by following our common sense to avoid unnecessary risks, and gave safety instructions to volunteers before and during the cleanup activities. As a group leader, I was also apprehensive about having to deal with any unforeseen trouble while on site. I remember the time when our group found a dead body in someone’s garden. We also had to manage a broken pipe incident at a house we were cleaning up during a time when water was most precious.
T: Did you or do you face any difficulties, challenges in your work for a volunteer organization?
L: For me, everything had been new. At the beginning, I was not used to being in a position of leadership. Although I am currently the Director of Finance and Treasury for NPO-Nadia and am in charge of the accounting, managing the organization’s bank account and preparing the yearly financial reports, I hadn’t worked in the field of accounting or finances before. I guess taking on these activities came naturally as the organization grew. Often, the faces of our friends in Tohoku appeared in my mind, and I knew that each minute spent on the project, no matter in what capacity, was bringing help to the people in need.
What we decide to do or not do has an effect on others, for example, if I hadn’t gone on a trip during the first months after March 2011, it would have meant stopping thirty other motivated volunteers from traveling to Tohoku to help, which would have resulted in delaying the cleaning of people’s homes, that could have led to the possibility of infections spreading, and individuals and families in the affected regions having to suffer another week or more in unbearable conditions.
During the day, I was working as an employee in a pharmaceutical company and after hours or during the weekend I was working as a volunteer. Although combining both activities was very challenging, it has also been very rewarding. I feel fortunate that my boyfriend was so supportive of my voluntary work. We ended up volunteering together and becoming very active in Nadia. However, due to our volunteering commitments, we lost contact with some good friends and no longer had time for hobbies. Holidays became non-existent.
As a non-profit organization, Nadia is overseen by a Board of Directors. Being a member of this Board, I find that when there is friction or a clash of ideas, it can be stressful. However, when we’ve been able to work through any difficult issues and challenging times, it’s made us stronger as a group, I feel.
T: What’s a really memorable experience that you’ve had since you began this volunteering work?
L: One of the rewards of having become involved with volunteering after March 11th has been the lovely memories and experiences that I’ve acquired. In April 2011, we helped a woman clean her house that had been devastated by the tsunami. She was very poor, but had so much dignity. She was so happy when we found her Michael Jackson compact discs, layered with mud but still working among the rotting items buried in the muck and slime. I’ve also developed a friendship with one family who had been relocated to a temporary housing facility in August 2011. They’re still living in the same accommodation now in a precarious situation, but we often reminisce about the emotional times of the early days when we had just met when I would bring fruits and water to their home.
Two years after the earthquake, in March 2013, I got married. The new friendships that I had formed through volunteering made our wedding incredibly special. The residents of Tohoku who had become our friends participated remotely while many volunteer friends attended in person. Having everyone present at our wedding demonstrated the strong bonds we had established during a tough and intense period of time in our lives.
T: It’s been 3 years now since Nadia was established, how do you envision the future of the organization?
L: I am happy that we are still an active group and have managed to bring together numerous people and direct their energies towards a worthwhile cause. I’d like to keep at the forefront of people’s minds the destruction that occurred in the Tohoku region due to the tsunami and the reconstruction work that’s still going on today. It’s challenging to become organized and maintain efficiency as a volunteer group, so we aim to keep the organization in good shape. Should another catastrophe occur again in Japan, we hope to be able to respond immediately to the situation and provide our assistance at any given time. Meanwhile, we remain active and want to stay operational for as long as we can with volunteer support and funding to match the needs that are still acute in Tohoku today. As the reconstruction of the Tohoku region evolves, we hope to adapt to these emerging needs as an organization. With the third anniversary of the earthquake this month, I plan to take my daughter to Tohoku on the weekend of March 15th with NPO-Nadia to build a playground for kids and to inaugurate a house for handicapped people.
T: What transformation have you witnessed in yourself and in your life due to this volunteering work?
L: The changes I experienced since becoming a volunteer after the earthquake were drastic during the first years. My priorities in life changed. I learned so much about myself and recognized my ability to take positive action when I consider the cause worthwhile. The experience has broadened my social interactions and introduced me to many new friends who all share the same ideals in life, and I cherish this immensely.
T: So, what is experience?
L: Experience is a long path on which I have much more to learn. So far, it’s been about cherishing relatives and friends, gathering common energies to achieve beautiful things and create new strong bonds. It is also listening to your heart, acting swiftly, making concessions and never giving up.
Photo source: Laureline Gatellier