Taking on a Tsunami: The story of All Hands Volunteers

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Occasionally a truck rumbles through, carrying yet another load of debris, but there are few other signs of life here besides an army of fast-growing weeds.

Somewhere under this strange landscape, the outlines of a suburb called Nonoda remain. This is one of the areas closest to the harbour in the city of Ofunato, on the coast of Iwate, northern Japan. They’ve seen tsunamis here before, but nothing like what happened on March 11th, 2011.

Along one stretch of a Nonoda road, a team of volunteers is hard at work. Their job is to dig out the mud and debris from the suburb’s storm water drains so that Ofunato won’t flood with the next heavy rainfall. The volunteers come from all over Japan as well as the US, UK, France, Singapore, Australia—the list goes on. These are All Hands volunteers, and today is just another day working on Project Tohoku.

All Hands didn’t start in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. In fact, it was the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami that prompted David Campbell, a former investment banker and technology executive, to set up the organisation.

“David had never done anything like this before,” explains Jiella Esmat, the organisation’s Associate Executive Director. “But after the Boxing Day tsunami, he was watching the TV news with a friend who was supposed to have been in Thailand when the tsunami hit. They were watching a hotel terrace being swallowed up by the wave, and David’s friend said: ‘I was supposed to be on that terrace.’ That made a big impression.”

So Campbell went to Thailand, and found enough like-minded volunteers to create the first version of All Hands, “Hands on in Thailand.” Soon, the group had a website—the essential ingredient when it came to receiving donations. Then more people started to get involved, and Hands on in Thailand set about helping families, fishermen, and shopkeepers by doing simple things like buying fridges or even supplies of beer to help a restaurant open its doors again.

“After David set up the project, he returned to the US to keep working from there, but others stayed on in Thailand,” Esmat explains. “By this stage, he had hit upon the vital mix of people who had money to donate but couldn’t help physically, on-the-ground volunteers, and communities that needed help.”

“Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and that’s what cemented All Hands,” Esmat continues. “In Beloxie, we had 500 to 600 volunteers set up in a church. That’s what All Hands is really about—rather than going where everyone else goes, we go to the places that are hard hit but hard to get to, because it’s those places that are probably going to be needing the most help.”

As All Hands continued to evolve, Campbell aimed to maintain a balance between international and US-based operations. “David wanted to remain true to his American roots, but also set up an international branch,” Esmat says. “We’ve since worked in places like Peru, Bangladesh, Indonesia, twice in Haiti, twice in Indonesia, and all over the US.”

As 2011 draws to a close, Project Tohoku will be moving into its final stages, but of course this won’t be the last project for All Hands. There will always be a community in need of help, so for people thinking of volunteering some time in the future, Esmat has the following advice: “As long was you want to help, can pay to get yourself to us, and have a hard-working attitude, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any specialised skills. Construction skills are very helpful, but we get ex-lawyers, carpenters, teachers, office workers—everyone brings something to the table.”

In fact, All Hands has now seen volunteers from over 45 countries, and Esmat says it’s this international mix that’s often the most meaningful to people in disaster zones. “A lot of these people have never seen foreigners before,” she says, gesturing at the remaining houses around Ofunato harbour. “But the fact that people come from all over the world to help gives them hope, and shows them that people care.”

Finally, Esmat emphasises that while All Hands can’t provide volunteers with anything luxurious in terms of accommodation, they can make sure people are engaged in meaningful work. “We make sure people know these are post-disaster situations and we can’t guarantee your safety,” she explains. “But we will feed and shelter you, and give you tools and projects to work on so you can be useful in the community immediately.”

It is hard work, but Esmat isn’t exaggerating when it comes to the effect volunteers have on disaster-affected communities. Later that week, two women arrive at the site where the Nonoda ditch-clearing team has reached. With tears in their eyes, they hand drinks out to each volunteer. “Thank you,” they say to the mud-covered volunteers. “Thank you for your hard work. This is where our house used to be.”

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