By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
With the constant information coming out of Japan since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami there, many who have been following those events may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news. A catastrophe of such magnitude can prove to be simply too much and too difficult to process from afar.
Last Thursday, visitors to the Little Tokyo headquarters of the Hiroshima Kenjinkai listened to first-hand accounts from the disaster zone, delivered by a Los Angeles County firefighter who recently returned from stricken regions of Iwate Prefecture.
Atsushi James Uyehara, a 10-year veteran of the department, is a member of the Urban Search and Rescue team sent to the Tohoku region from March 12 through 19. The 42-year-old engineering specialist told of the unimaginable destruction his unit encountered in the ravaged cities of Ofunato and Kamaishi.
“Both cities had major, heavy damage,” Uyehara said. “We were expecting more damage from the 9.0 earthquake, not thinking that there would be much damage from the tsunami, but most of it was all tsunami damage, like the kind that we would get with hurricanes over here.”
This was the first overseas mission for Uyehara, who has been part of the USAR squad for eight years. His team has been sent to help in rescue efforts after calamities such as Hurricane Katrina and earthquakes in China, Haiti and New Zealand. He described how the call for their services came within hours of the temblor in Japan, which occurred when it was still late Thursday in California.
“We were first contacted to be on standby to go to Japan at about 4 o’clock Friday morning,” he explained, “and we were deployed to the Pacoima assembly point at 9 o’clock. We knew we needed to go to Japan, so the flight was arranged and we flew to Misawa Air Force Base in northern Japan. From there, we went to Ofunato.”
Uyehara described how the primary mission of the 74-man team was to search for survivors in the homes that had been reduced to rubble by the tsunami, and how reaching the affected areas was their first major challenge.
“When we got off the plane, to see that much devastation, we understood that the tsunami had come from the ocean, but from where we were searching, you couldn’t even see the ocean,” he explained. “We had to have been at least a mile and a half to two miles from the inlet, all the way up to higher ground where we were searching.
“When we looked from the hilltop to the ocean, it’s amazing how far the tsunami came in,” said Uyehara, describing the obstacles posed by the mountains of splintered homes, cars, boats and other large objects washed inland by the surging waves.
“There was so much debris, it took us more than two and a half hours to arrive at the city,” he explained. “It snowed overnight and it was very, very cold. I never thought I would ever use all my cold-weather gear, but every night, we used every single bit of it.”
Describing a photo of mangled buildings being shown on a television screen during his remarks, Uyehara said, “I’ve never seen I-beams twisted like those we saw over there. It’s amazing the power of what the tsunami did. We have four structural engineers who fly with us and they said they had seen no damage from the earthquake in the homes, it was all tsunami damage. They said Japanese homes are built very sturdily.”
Uyehara recounted how his team members had to carry all their own supplies — three weeks’ worth of food and water, medical items, even portable toilet kits. He said that key to their search was information they received from residents who had successfully evacuated.
“We spoke to people and many of the older folks said that they got out because half the town was working,” he said. “They had a tsunami warning which gave them 30 to 45 minutes to get out, but the ones that didn’t want to leave were some of the elder people who thought maybe it was one of ‘those false alarms again.’ Those are the ones who stayed and got caught in their homes and were washed out or trapped inside the houses.
“In an earthquake, usually the ones who live are the ones who take cover and the ones that get out, but in this case, those were the ones who were hardest to find, because the tsunami pushed the debris into all areas and so we couldn’t tell where to search.”
Uyehara described how, almost upon arrival, he and his fellow rescuers were treated with unexpected gratitude. During a search of a building that had housed a karaoke bar, he was approached by a woman who identified herself as the owner of the club.
“The lady said she was the owner and the captain wanted to know if everyone got out in time,” he recalled. “She said yes, she and her baby got out and her husband was at work, so they all got out.”
What happened next is something Uyehara said he will always remember.
“She reached into her purse and grabbed some o-sembei crackers from her purse, and she gave them to us. She said, ‘This is all I have. Thank you for being here.’ These people had lost everything, all they had was what they were wearing, and this woman found something to give us as a gift.”
Even as highly-trained and well-prepared as Uyehara as his team are for disasters, and despite the adrenaline that enables them to work sometimes days without substantial sleep, the sensitivities of being human are something they nonetheless cannot switch off. The cold reality of their mission remains that despite traveling to Japan to find and rescue survivors, his unit found no one alive and six deceased.
“My wife always asks how we deal with it when we don’t find anyone,” Uyehara said. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to find anyone and help them, but we’re there for that chance if we do find someone.
“We are fit and ready to work, for 24 hours if we have to. If we have someone trapped in a pile, we’re not going to stop operation until that person is out, it’s going to be a 24-hour operation.
“I just know deep down inside, like with the fire department where our mission is to preserve life and property … It’s hard sometimes to think that even though I didn’t find anyone, I did my job and did my best, and tried to best represent the department.”
He said he was encouraged by the resilient spirit of the residents in the devastated areas, adding that he believed Japan would recover from this calamity in five years or so — about half the time that would be expected in other parts of the world.
“As soon as we arrived there, they were clearing the roads just to get in, people were helping each other, they were in good spirits,” he explained. “When we would go by shops that were damaged but still livable, we could hear giggles and laughter coming from them and for us to see that is a good sign that they’re going to recover pretty quickly.”
A man in the audience asked what is the most effective way that individuals could help in the recovery effort, as there are myriad efforts under way, with varied ideas of how best to help. Uyehara respond that the real, immediate needs of the people affected are the most important.
“If you look at any disaster, the first thing to start rebuilding is money,” he explained. “I know the Hiroshima Kenjinkai is donating to Red Cross. They are a major source of relief in Japan, and we use them day in and day out.”
The Hiroshima Kenjinkai recently donated $30,000 to the relief effort.
Uyehara, a Yonsei, was one of three Nikkei USAR team members who traveled to Japan. He said deployment to the place of his heritage added a personal element to his mission, and added to the sense of loss he felt along with the victims, whose entire lives had been washed away.
“Before we went, we saw the footage on CNN, but we got to actually walk the area,” he said. “I’d never seen the towns before, but you knew that there had been a town there, and you look now and it’s gone. You could there was a school here, a fire station there, a bank, the 7-Eleven. But it’s all gone.”
Uyehara, who attended Gardena High School and lived much of his life in Oxnard, also teaches a Community Emergency Response course as part of his firefighter duties. He said the experience will help him better prepare his students.
“You learn something new and you look at life a little differently. This helps me prepare the community before something like this happens. They always ask me if I’ve ever been to a disaster and now I can say I have and I can tell them what I really think they need to prepare for.”