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|| News Item: Posted 2011-08-31

When an Assignment Becomes a Mission
By Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

June 10, 2011, Minamisanriku, Miyagi, Japan - A crane in the background is clearing debris from where Kuniko Suzuki's house used to stand before a 40-foot tsunami washed it away by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011.
A red steel frame stands alone on a concrete slab surrounded by piles of debris. Fishing nets and buoys dangle from the sides like Christmas decorations. The cream colored siding is all but missing. Flowers are placed on the doorstep of what is left of the Minamisanriku Town Hall building to honor those who died.

150 yards away, the concrete shell of the town’s 4-story hospital sits idle. Inside, there are no doctors and no patients, only sludge and debris. Across the street, the third-floor of a wedding reception hall is filled with oyster shells, remnants of a once thriving oyster farming industry.

These are a few of the handful of buildings that were still standing in Minamisanriku after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami estimated at over 50 feet devastated this small fishing town. Everything else that wasn’t located in the neighboring hills is gone.

It’s really hard to imagine the sheer scale of the damage unless you have been there. Imagine a half-mile wide swath of total destruction from San Diego to Santa Barbara or from New York City to Washington D. C. Over 200 miles of coastline were devastated.

In Minamisanriku it is estimated that over 75 percent of the city was washed away. The only evidence of the once thriving community are the foundations of the homes and businesses left behind.

Of the 17,000 residents, over 500 are dead, and over 600 are still missing. Most of the survivors have relocated to other areas to live with relatives, in evacuation centers or at government built temporary housing units. Only about 3,000 remain within the town limits.

In total, the triple disaster has claimed over 15,500 lives in the Tohoku region with over 4,500 still unaccounted for.

While the death toll doesn’t compare to the 2009 Haiti earthquake or the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the destruction along the Northeastern coast of Japan is unprecedented. Almost entire towns have literally been wiped off the planet by tsunami waves that left nothing behind except splintered wood and broken dreams. Over 400,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.

My first of two trips to the Tohoku area, along with my friend and fellow photographer Ken Matsui, was more than two months after the earthquake and tsunami, yet many areas still looked as if it had happened the week before. While most of the roads had been cleared, most of the remaining debris sat untouched except by emergency crews looking for survivors.

While the amount of destruction is unimaginable, the most moving part of our trips were the survivors we met. There is 73-year old Kuniko Suzuki who was swept up by the tsunami waters only to have a floating rooftop scoop her up and carry her to an embankment where a firefighter pulled her to safety. In this YouTube video ( you can see the tsunami waters rush in behind her before she disappears out of frame.

There is Jun Suzuki (no relation), who was in an evacuation area watching the tsunami destroy his hometown. When the water crested over a two-story market, he realized that he wasn’t high enough. With no time to get to higher ground, he evacuated his mother and grandmother into a nursing home that was inundated by the floodwaters. The water rose above his head, but all three survived when the water receded after peaking only a foot below the ceiling.

Our job as journalists is to tell stories. Our responsibility as humans is to help those in need.

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

May 18, 2011; Minamisanriku, Miyagi Pref., Japan - Jun Suzuki shows how high the water rose inside a room at the Tokubetsu Yogo Homu Jikeien, a special nursing care home for the elderly, where he and his parents were caught in the tsunami floodwaters.
After returning home, Ken and I decided that we needed to go back and document more stories and see what we can do to help the people of Japan. So three weeks later, equipped with 7Ds, Sennheiser mics, a Zoom H4N and some Quantum strobes, we returned to the Tohoku region for 10 days to not only document more stories, but to also volunteer and improve their quality of life.

During our first visit we realized that there are certain needs that still aren’t being met because the government is overwhelmed with trying to meet the essential needs of housing, food, infrastructure and cleaning debris.

We noticed their meals were meager and consisted of variations of rice, instant noodles, salad, miso soup and fruit. Where’s the meat? We couldn’t imagine eating this for three months. So during our second visit we cooked a BBQ for our newly adopted family – 105 evacuees at the Shizugawa High School evacuation center.

We make it a point to ask everyone we interview what they need. Their initial response is always “nothing” and that we should ask their neighbor. As typical Japanese, they don’t want to burden other people with their needs and always defer the request to someone else to make sure other people are taken care of. But with a little prodding, they understand that we’re serious and we want to help them.

Norishige Onodera, the principal at Shishiori Elementary School in Kesennuma, where we delivered origami cranes and paper hearts sent from elementary school children in Thousand Oaks and South Pasadena (California), told us they needed school supplies and money to send the sixth grade class on their graduation trip. Due to damage to the school, money had to be used for repairs and supplies and the graduating class was unable to go on their annual rite of passage. The principal himself cared for over 140 students for three days directly after the earthquake and tsunami.

One parent asked for a laptop for his daughter. The evacuation center has no Internet service. Mitsuaki Maeda wants to reopen his sushi restaurant that was completely destroyed, along with his home, so that he can provide for his family, including his niece, who he has now taken in after his brother and sister-in-law have not been found and are presumed dead.

Despite all of their losses, many lost everything, their adherence to their core values, their spirit to move forward and their determination to rebuild is admirable. Everywhere you go, there are different variations of “gambarou” signs, which loosely translated means “let’s do our best”.

After returning from our trip over two months ago, we realized that with the information we have and the people we met, we are in a unique position where we can provide direct aid to the people. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of the people who need it the most – the evacuees. No Red Cross. No World Vision.

So we secured a fiscal sponsor so people can make tax deductible donations and created an website ( so we can share these stories of survival with the world in order to raise awareness of the ongoing needs and to raise funds to help the people in the hardest hit areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures.

We will continue to go back to provide direct aid to the people and to document their stories as they rebuild their lives and recover from the triple disaster. In Minamisanriku, their future is uncertain. The government has not decided whether or not people can rebuild in the tsunami area and financial aid has been slow, if at all.

But Kuniko Suzuki remains optimistic. “Even though I am living in a mountain of debris, I have a strong spirit to go through this. I have to do something. I have to live. I don’t want to die like this. If there is a chance, I would like to build a house again.”

For more information on how you can help:

To read more detailed stories:

(Darrell Miho is a freelance photographer based in Southern California. You can see samples of his work at his Sports Shooter member page: )

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