Tuesday, May 7, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (73)

 2 April, 7 am: 30 kilometres south of Suzu, we slow for the first section of collapsed road. The highway here made the mistake of running along a ridgeline – which, like a shaped charge, focused the earthquake’s energy into its apex, triggering landslip after landslip. The bus lurches down onto a temporary bypass before picking its way carefully around the undermined tarmac.

Three months and one day after the Noto Peninsula earthquake, we are on our way to Suzu City, the worst-hit town after Wajima, right at the peninsula’s tip. The Fukui authorities have been sending in a daily busload of volunteers since the roads were reopened back in February. And today the Sensei is sending in the two of us.

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

The bus retraces the path of the New Year’s Day shockwaves in reverse. First we see villages that look entirely undamaged, except for blue tarpaulins stretched across the house roofs where tiles were dislodged. Next come roadside graveyards where the stone monuments have toppled over, or a temple belfry has developed a drunken lean. Then come the abandoned or collapsed houses.

We stop off at Noto Satoyama Airport, north of Anamizu. The buildings look to be in perfect shape, unlike the car park and forecourts, which are cracked and broken from liquefaction effects. We get a ten-minute break: “These will be your last working toilets,” our minder says. 

8:50 am: the bus arrives opposite Suzu City’s Ikigai Katsudo Senta. It’s taken more than four hours to cover the 218 kilometres from Fukui. Under an awning, we are briefed on our tasks and how to go about them. If we are asked to do anything dangerous, we have the right of refusal. As for etiquette, please do not take pictures, and refrain from inadvertently patronising local people with expressions such as “taihen desu ne” (it’s tough, isn’t it).

Indeed, “taihen desu ne” may understate what we see next. Deployed in a two-ton truck and two mini-trucks, we drive a short way to our work site. Today’s job is to clear the wreckage of a collapsed kura (storehouse). The house it belongs to is more or less upright and intact, although bereft of power, water and drainage. 

But an annex built over a garage leans dangerously towards our work site. Fortunately, earthquake aftershocks are now far and few between: some weeks ago, a volunteer was killed when such a tremor caused a damaged building to collapse.

We start off collecting shattered timbers and load them into a mini-truck. When the vehicle’s tyres start bulging out at the bottom, a volunteer drives it to the dump site. 

While the trucks are away, I take a look round. Over the road, an old farmhouse has sagged into the ground, as if from exhaustion. Its tiles have stayed on, although the roofline now curves and buckles like the back of some ancient sea beast. The ubiquitous blue plastic sheets shroud two vans parked nearby against the sea air. Otherwise, nobody seems to have started clearing up. 

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

When the two-tonner comes back, we start clearing the black-glazed roof tiles. Now we’re starting to understand why clearing up after an earthquake is so labour-intensive, and why it’s worth bussing in volunteers from afar. Tiles, timber, metals and plastics all have to be separated, sorted and trucked to different parts of the communal dump - tile by tile, beam by beam, plastic sheet by plastic sheet.

There really are a lot of tiles here. It’s a shame that nobody will reuse them, and it saves space if they are smashed into fragments as we load the big baskets on the two-tonner. To save time, we adopt human chain tactics - passing the tiles from hand to hand up to the loader on the truck, who flings them down into the big creels. 

While all the trucks are away at the dump, we take our noon break. We’ve brought our lunch, including drinks, from home, as there is no running water, and nowhere to buy food here. Fortunately, the Sensei has laid in a more than adequate supply of rice balls and tangerines. We even have a thermos of coffee.

There are twelve volunteers today, although the bus could have taken twenty. Over there is K-san, whose helmet and attached Black Diamond head-torch instantly identify him as a mountaineer – good, that makes three of us. There are one or two college students. And there is a middle-school maths teacher who is using his school holidays to help out. Today, he’s brought along his son too. 

After lunch, we finish off the tiles and turn our attention to a last load of mixed timber. No, bamboo does not count as timber; all the stems have to be separately piled for disposal somewhere else. A couple of pictures are lying on the ground – the metal frames can go for recycling. On closer inspection, a large and beautiful print turns out to be a completed and framed jigsaw puzzle – is it really all right to break that up? Somebody put a lot of effort into it…

Collapsed wooden buildings in Suzu City, Ishikawa Pref.
(Image from Quick Report of preliminary reconnaissance
of the 2024 Noto-Hanto Earthquake - see link in text) 

The maths teacher asks me to ride with him in the two-tonner’s last run to the municipal dump. He knows all the routes around Suzu, he says in English – this is his twentieth day of volunteering since February. We drive along the coast along what, up until 4.10pm on New Year’s Day, was an idyllic stretch of old houses set amid gardens and groves. This part of town was hit first by the earthquake and then by a tidal wave, says the teacher. Some of the buildings are intact, some careen on their sides, and still others have collapsed so that their eaves are level with the ground. 

Surrounded by camellia bushes and fruit trees, it was the old houses that gave Suzu so much of its charm. About 65% of the city’s housing stock was built before 1981, according to this report, the highest proportion in Japan. In the earthquake, the old houses became death-traps: more than a hundred lives were lost in Suzu alone, close to half of the peninsula’s overall toll.

At 3.30 pm, we knock off work. As we have to detour through Anamizu in the rush hour – the highway can take inbound traffic only – the ride home is even longer than in the morning. When we get back, late in the evening, the Sensei says she has been thinking a lot about the people who lived in that house. There is still so much to be done, tile by tile, beam by beam, sheet by sheet …

1 comment:

Edward J. Taylor said...

Such a shame. Suzu, Wajama, Noto are truly special places. Hope they can recover quickly.