The tragedy of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan turned to opportunity and the fulfillment of a dream to travel and assist others in need for Chris Peguero of Seattle City Light.
Peguero, an executive assistant in City Light’s Environmental Affairs Division, has always wanted to travel to Japan. He grew up in Laredo, Texas, and Green Bay, Wisc., before coming to Seattle. While in college, he traveled around the South Pacific as part of a study abroad program. A few years ago, he visited Thailand, where he helped build a library in a small village off the beaten tourist path.
“I find travel more endearing when you’re giving back,” Chris says.
When the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami devastated the island nation in March 2011, Chris was inspired to help out. He heard about a volunteer relief mission through Seattle’s Downtown YMCA. Soon he and a Japanese-speaking fellow Seattleite were on their way to Miyako, Japan, for two weeks in October. They joined other volunteers from around the world. Some were there for just a few days, others for weeks or even months.
The YMCA’s program is less structured than many international relief mission programs. Volunteers need to coordinate with the YMCA in Seattle, but travel to Japan whenever it fits their schedules and pay their own way. There is no formal group trip – volunteers make all their own travel arrangements. The local YMCA in Miyako works with the community to determine what kind of projects would be most helpful for volunteers to take on.
One of the first projects YMCA volunteers worked on after the tsunami was cleaning out hedoro, a Japanese word that describes the sludge-like mixture of mud, water, and debris that had filled most of the buildings in Miyako that hadn’t been destroyed outright. The church where the YMCA volunteers slept was filled with 6 feet of water. It became one of the first cleaning projects the volunteers completed.
By the time Peguero arrived in October, six months after the tsunami, most of the initial cleaning was done, so he did whatever odd jobs the community needed. One day it was pressure-washing the base structure of a house that was scheduled to be renovated. Another was weeding overgrown lots where buildings had once stood in preparation for a rebuild. Chris helped clean and air out a family’s personal library of books and served as a crossing guard at an elementary school at an intersection where the traffic lights had no power.
Many displaced citizens in Japan are living in pre-made homes, or “pre-fabs,” similar to the FEMA trailers that cropped up along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Chris spent several days delivering electric heating carpets to elderly people living in the pre-fabs. He formed close relationships with both Miyako residents and fellow international volunteers during his time in Japan.
“You become family very quickly, living in such close quarters,” Peguero said.
One person who made an indelible impact on Chris was an elderly woman who lived in a damaged home close to the crosswalk where volunteers served as crossing guards. She was mourning the loss of her daughter and the damage to her longtime home, but was rebuilding. She kept a list in Japanese characters of the names of all the YMCA volunteers she met and put it by her door as a remembrance.
“There’s something of me still there,” Chris says of his relationship to the people of Miyako. He would like to go back this March or April with his partner, Anthony, to help out once again and check in on the people he met who touched his life.
Disasters are often forgotten about once the initial media cycle has passed, but the need for aid continues for years afterwards. Miyako lost 550 people to the combined earthquake and tsunami; the neighboring city of Yamada lost 800. The tsunami affected an area equivalent to the distance from Seattle to San Francisco. Recovery will take decades.
“Don’t forget about us, because we need help,” Japanese citizens told Chris in October. He hasn’t forgotten, and hopes to continue to raise both awareness and funds for restoration work as long as they are needed.
Chris raised $1,800 to partially fund his trip through a silent auction he held at Seattle City Light. He will likely hold another fundraiser soon to defray the costs of his next trip this spring. Anyone who is interested in participating in the Japan Tsunami Relief Mission should contact Monica Quill Kusakabe at the Downtown YMCA at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 382-4362.