— Few people in Japan would have considered driving to Fukushima prefecture in the immediate aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan.
But Beau Retallick and his friends did just that, buying a Geiger counter and stuffing two vans with water, food, fuel, plastic suits to protect against radiation and makeshift toilets before setting off on a trip that would take them within 25 miles of the crippled and leaking nuclear power plant there.
“The fight that I have put forward to try and help the people up north is because I believe in the country, I believe in the people,” said Retallick, a 36-year-old Australian who runs a bungee jumping business and a hotel in Japan, where he has lived for 12 years.
Retallick is one of a number of expats turned volunteers who have dropped their day jobs and pitched in to help their adopted country recover from the devastation that the United Nations says forced 170,500 people from their homes and damaged 138,000 buildings.
“I’m feeling pretty tired — obviously this is not what we normally do — so it’s been a bit of a strange, strange experience going through all this,” he told msnbc.com in a telephone interview, noting they had “just sort of dealt with the change and tried to help out.”
Retallick said his involvement in the relief effort began shortly after the quake, when a friend, Ed Hanman, asked if he wanted to join him on a journey to the Fukushima area to evacuate his wife’s family and deliver supplies to an area that had no water or other necessities. Retallick agreed, but decided that one precaution would be prudent. Amid the preparations, he went to Tokyo to buy a Geiger counter.
“We thought taking the expressway, which is probably 30 to 40 kilometers (20 to 25 miles) from the reactor, was reasonably safe. It was only a short time that we’d be on that expressway passing the reactor, so we figured we’d push through,” he said. “We just thought it was some sort of responsibility that we had to get up there and do that.”
'Made a bit of a mistake'
They got a reality check soon after they arrived at Hanman’s in-laws’ home on March 14, when they heard reports of an explosion at the Fukushima plant, which was less than 20 miles away.
“I thought of it as a bit of a storm in a teacup when they talked about that kind of stuff. I think, yeah, in hindsight I probably underestimated it a little bit,” he said. “When we were there and it popped we thought, ‘Oh God, we’ve made a bit of a mistake,’” noting that sirens were sounding and a friend told them to place wet towels over their heads.
But they also saw the desperate plight of many survivors. On their second trip to the area, while visiting the town of Rizukentakata, which was flattened, they found hundreds of survivors huddled in a single building with virtually none of life’s necessities.
“They had less than 100 liters of water left,” he said. “They had nothing to possibly make it through the night, no food. They had 300, 400 people in one building.” He recalled one Japanese woman taking him by the arm and begging him to leave a water tank — a serious gesture in the reserved Japanese culture.
Encounters like that one steeled the resolve of Retallick and his friends to help. They decided to get residents in Retallick’s hometown of Minakami, in the mountains northwest of Tokyo, involved in their ragtag relief effort, talking up their mission at a town meeting.
“From what we did then, the people from the town started taking loads up and basically disobeying the tourism board, which was saying that we shouldn’t go past the reactor,” Retallick said. “We sort of started a bit of a cascade in our town of people going up past the reactor and taking aid up to the north, and since then, we sort of just couldn’t stop.”
Volunteers have now made six trips to dozens of cities and towns in hard-hit Iwate prefecture, delivering about $3,000 worth of goods each time, weighing from 2,645 pounds to 4,400 pounds, he said.
They have also made good use of the Geiger counter, Retallick said, noting that it helped calm people’s nerves to get checked and learn that they had not been contaminated with radiation.
Other expat groups — no one can say how many — are pitching in with similar “guerrilla-style” aid efforts.
Timo Budow, a 44-year-old entrepreneur from Alexandria, Va., said he and about a dozen other volunteers — including Japanese, Irish, British, Canadian and Americans — quickly pooled their resources after the disaster and set up a donation depot.
They're members of Foreign Volunteers Japan, which has more than 900 followers on its Facebook page. There Japanese and foreigners alike post pleas to help schools and orphans among other groups, as well as information about fundraisers and tips on donating, volunteering and transporting goods.
“We wanted to do something to help out and be as effective as possible,” he said, noting that they also wanted to counter the bad impression of foreigners skipping town amid the nuclear scare. “We didn’t leave, and we’re here, trying to help people.”
So far, Budow and others have made four trips to the hard-hit cities of Ishinomaki and Sendai in Miyagi prefecture and Soma in Fukushima prefecture, hauling water, canned goods, undergarments, adult diapers for the large elderly population, crayons, paper and pens for children, he said. He has another trip coming up this weekend.
“The devastation up there is just so massive that the government can’t handle it on its own and there’s going to be lots of different organizations helping out and lots of individuals helping out for the next — not just weeks — but months … maybe even a year,” he said. “Our objective was mainly just to sort of put a dent in their misery somehow.”
All told, Foreign Volunteers Japan now has about 150 active members working on relief supply efforts and fundraising, including concerts planned in Rome and in Tokyo in the summer. They have made about 30 trips, carrying an estimated 80 tons of supplies, said a spokesman for the group.
"We aim as a group to be a portal of information and source of volunteers for all organizations working on the disaster," he wrote in an email to msnbc.com.
'A self-satisfying mission'?
Despite their good intentions, some Japanese are uncomfortable with the foreigners’ efforts.
One woman, Rieko Terui, wrote on the Facebook page of Budo’s group, Foreign Volunteers Japan, that she felt more emphasis should be put on supporting efforts by the local government.
“While it’s nice to come all the way up here to help individually, it’s also important to help existing efforts be more effective,” she wrote last week. “As I live in Iwate with my American husband, we get a lot of requests from foreign donors and helpers and cannot help feeling that this is becoming like tourism or some kind of self-satisfying mission as they seem condescending about local governmental efforts.”
“I’m sorry if I sound harsh because I know you all mean well,” she added.
But Kirsten Mildren, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that even makeshift operations like those of Retallick and Budow can play a role in helping with the recovery.
“Any volunteer that, if they can find their own way to get there and to actually be able to help, then you know of course it’s going to be well-received, as long as they are not a drain on resources,” she said from Tokyo.
In a report last week on the situation facing Japan, OCHA wrote that an ongoing fuel shortage was preventing many volunteers and nongovernmental organizations from reaching the devastated areas.
“Much of local media’s focus at the moment is on the coordination challenges and local authorities’ capacity to absorb volunteers,” the report said. “They report that many municipalities in the affected areas are unable to receive the increasing number of volunteers because of limited coordination capacity and lack of fuel and food to spare. As a result, most municipalities have limited the number of volunteers and existing volunteers are exhausted.”
Retallick said he has seen the impact that individual efforts can produce, so much so that he has rearranged his responsibilities at work to commit himself to the aid effort.
He said some heart-wrenching moments have deepened his dedication to the cause: Japanese politely lining up to receive food, even though they were told they didn’t need to; out-of-work fisherman going out to sea to provide food for hungry survivors, and women cleaning the fish alongside the road; salutes and waves from Japanese as the group passed by in their vans outfitted with a notice that they were engaged in quake relief.
One of the most touching moments occurred during his last trip north, where the group was seeing “heavier levels of destruction” in an area farther from the epicenter than many other hard-hit communities. There, a family approached to thank them for their efforts, bowing according to Japanese custom and shaking his hand in the Western style. Only after speaking with them did he learn that the family had traveled to Iwate to help 10 relatives – all of whom they eventually learned had died.
“I really want to see things work out better for them up there after the experiences that we had … and the feeling that we got from the people,” he said. “It pulls at your heart a little bit seeing this stuff … I can’t really walk away from it.”