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Christchurch volunteer army helps out in Japan

Submitted by on July 30, 2011 – 1:44 amNo Comment

Sam Deans talks with Sam Johnson, leader of the Christchurch student clean up army, about his bid to help victims of Japan’s recent tsunami disaster.

Young volunteers working in Christchurch. Photo by MJaneRoss

Few people would want to hear the phrase, “tsunami comes from this way, you run that way!” constantly, but for Sam Johnson in disaster-stricken Japan this warning became a chilling reminder of the threats lurking beneath the earth.

The 22 year old University of Canterbury student recently coordinated an international relief effort in Miyagi Prefecture modeled on Christchurch’s Student Volunteer Army. At the request of US group Global DIRT (Disaster Immediate Response Team) members of Johnson’s student team worked with Japanese university students to clean-up the devastated Ishinomaki City area and to set up a national clean-up volunteer network.

Johnson was president of the Christchurch clean-up army following the September 4th earthquake last year. He was later elected to the local Community Board and had an audience with Prince William.

“There was no one else that seemed to be very involved in the community, in terms of young people,” says Johnson explaining the catalyst for his involvement, “it was a bit of an interesting adventure that looked like fun.” This adventure eventually lead him to earthquake-devastated Japan.

Having experienced the volunteer army Johnson created in New Zealand, Adam Marlatt, a former US marine and President of American-based disaster response team, Global DIRT,  said he was interested in Johnson replicating the model with volunteers from US universities.

“When [Japan’s disaster] came along” said Johnson “Adam just Facebook messaged me and said would you guys be keen to come to Japan and help set up something here?”

For Johnson the decision was simple, “Yip that’d be cool, let us know some more details,” he replied before starting to plan how he and a fellow student could implement a similar program there.

“I emailed the top dogs at Air New Zealand and asked if they would fund our flights,” he explains, “then we used a bit of personal funding with some help from the volunteer army, and the money [Global] Dirt gave us when we arrived.”

This resourcefulness has been an essential asset for Johnson, as his time in Japan has been far from an armchair ride. As he explained, “we flew over to Japan and met up with the Global Dirt people in Tokyo, who pretty much just gave us accommodation and that was about it. From there we just really did our own thing.”

“We spent three days in Tokyo meeting a whole lot of students who we’d arranged to speak with, talking them over the model of large-scale volunteering and what we did in Christchurch and how it could work again.”

“Then we went up north and spent six or seven days volunteering with different organisations everyday.” The nonchalance with which Johnson recounts this story gives the impression that the process was easy, but in fact the environment has been fraught with challenges.

“There are all the complications around the language barrier and the fact that the Japanese are actually the most organised people in the world when it comes to emergency management,” observed Johnson. “They have a very tightly run bureaucracy so it’s hard to just slip things in by who you know, which is part of the reason why Christchurch worked so well.”

He also detected a different cultural mindset between disaster survivors in the two nations.

“The Japanese people don’t expect anything from their government. They are conditioned to survive by themselves for quite a while after an earthquake, and anything that happens to them they consider their destiny…10 minutes of volunteer time to them is a huge deal, whereas for us it is almost expected.”

However  Johnson makes it clear that any organisational challenges pale in comparison to addressing the physical devastation that has engulfed Japan.

“You’ll go out volunteering everyday and the whole place is just destroyed, there’s no buildings everywhere.”

Working in such volatile surroundings forced Johnson to seriously consider his own safety, particularly when he entered the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, which was badly damaged in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

“There were certainly times when we were like holy moly, what are we doing? But it was actually more the tsunami than the radiation [that frightened us].”

“We came across one building, it was two-storied, and it had a bus on top of the roof. That made you appreciate the size and scale of the wave, so it was always a bit scary wondering exactly what’s coming and how it could happen.”

Despite the significant hurdles in coordinating the Japan effort, Johnson still felt the trip was successful and he remains heavily involved now he’s back in New Zealand.

“I actually had a meeting last night with the team in Japan,” he says with obvious enthusiasm, “there’s 10 people who are now running the operation…it’s pretty difficult, it’s a lot slower than what it is here and bigger. But it seems to be working well.”

Following the success of the Japan trip, Johnson received a Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award in New Zealand and has been invited to India to speak at a global change-makers conference.

When quizzed on his new-found media profile he reverts to a 22 year-old student, “the media attention is bizarre and it’s never-ending; Radio New Zealand rang me five times tonight and it’s like, holy can you just give us some breathing time!”

That breathing time may be some way off yet, as there is plenty to keep him occupied in Christchurch.

“We’ve only just begun…it’s really difficult to try and picture what happens when everything is changing so dramatically around us. I want to really…make sure the residents are involved in the rebuild of Christchurch, because if they’re not, no one’s going to live here.”

It would seem politics is a natural progression for Johnson and he admits to harbouring such ambitions, “I’ve always been interested in politics…but certainly not in the short term, I think politics is something I’d like to get into later in life.”

For now his focus is on Christchurch, and in Sam Johnson, the city has a great asset.

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