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Volunteer pays a price to help tsunami victims

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 Katsuhito Torii is finally going home.

Though he didn’t lose his home to the March 11 tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeastern coast, the 37-year-old carpenter and single dad has been living ever since  in an emergency shelter in the fishing community of Miyako, working as a jack-of-most-trades to help those whose lives were shattered by the disaster.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Katsuhito Torii leans against a shed he built for a washing machine and sinks at the shelter at Daini junior high school in Miyako, Japan.

Three months later, though, he has run through his savings and is feeling the stress of living in tight quarters with the tsunami’s most devastated victims.

When asked about what he would do when he returns to work this week, a tired-looking Torii said: "I can’t think that far even now. I have been having dreams of the tsunami and all the problems in this shelter, so I can’t even think about the future."

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Volunteer Katsuhito ToriiÕs sleeping quarters in a gymnasium storage room at the shelter at Daini junior high school in Miyako, Japan. Torii has lived and worked at the shelter full-time since the earthquake and tsunami struck three months ago. June 10. 2011. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com)

Torii’s story illustrates the tremendous impact volunteers have had in the months since the tsunami struck, and the price that some pay for their involvement.


Torii, who said he lived "just a normal life" in Miyako before the disaster, rushed to Daini junior high school on March 11 to check on his daughter after hearing about the 9.0-magnitude quake that had struck offshore. En route, he saw the tsunami waves coming into the community and thought, "This is it," but he made it to the school, which is perched on a hillside.

Torii sent his 14-year-old daughter, Ikue -- a student at the school who greeted visitors on Friday before rushing off to her next class – to live with his mother.  But he stayed at the school, which quickly morphed into an emergency shelter, and quickly took on the role of Mr. Fixit.

"I’m the kind of guy, who, once I am in, I have to finish it. I can’t just quit," he said.

The atmosphere in the shelter in those early days was oppressive, he recalled.

Koichi Aizawa, a 53-year-old tofu maker, gives us a tour of the shelter in Miyako city where he and his wife have been living since their home and business were destroyed by the tsunami.

"There were many aftershocks and we didn’t know when the next tsunami would come," he said. "There was no electricity, no water. So we had to go get some water and when somebody came they needed someone to take care of them. Back then there were only (15 to 20) schoolteachers and me.

"The first day we were in the classroom sleeping, but there were many people who were mentally depressed and at midnight there were some people who were sleepwalking. I was up 24 hours working, because back then there were no volunteer workers."

Torii did what he could to give the evacuees some semblance of normalcy in their lives. He used his savings to buy small things for the shelter  –  knives, can openers and cutting boards – and made a few bigger purchases as well -- a Wii for the children and costumes so he could perform  for them almost every night.

He also  built an outdoor shed for a washing machine and sinks, helped put up partitions in the gym to give the 200 people sheltered there at the peak some privacy, cooked, picked up donated food, futons and generators, and collected water from a mountain spring, since the school initially had no water.

His daughter pitched in, spending time with some children who lost a parent in the disaster, and gaining an "understanding of the importance of this volunteer work."

The work has been  the hardest he has done, he said, "not just physically but more mentally. You have to look ahead -- way ahead -- otherwise you can’t deal with what’s going on."

He has had to deal with the everyday issues of people living in close quarters and coping with the trauma of a nightmare that took the lives of 420 people, destroyed 3,670 homes and left at least 1,170 homeless in the city of 60,000. Some people were concerned about rations being shared equally, while others didn't want to move out of the gym into the classrooms last week.

Finally, Torii decided last week that the time had come to leave. He has run out of money and needs to work, plus "another phase is starting" -- that of the rebuilding.

"It’s a very busy time after the tsunami because of the reconstruction demand," he said. "I’ve been getting many business calls in the last month, so after Sunday, I’ll go back to work and be busy."

Half of Miyako, which is tucked in a national park, was untouched by the disaster, and businesses in those areas are leading the recovery. Japanese media reported last week that the Reconstruction Design Council, part of the Cabinet, has estimated the reconstruction for the devastated areas will cost between $176 billion and $250 billion.

Meantime, nearly 90,000 people remain in shelters like the one that Torii is leaving behind, with another 12,100 living in 27,600 temporary houses, according to Japanese media, which cited statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Torii plays down his volunteer role, saying it was a "no-brainer" to do what he could to help. He also noted there wouldn't be a void in his absence, with the city now helping run the shelter.

"There’s nothing much to do actually" since the people moved into classrooms, he said. "And they (the city workers) can take care of everything so I thought I could go home."

But it's clear he has made an impact. Children, people living at the shelter and the city workers constantly greet him as he talks to visitors. A woman who used the washing machine in his outdoor shed to do laundry said his absence will be felt, noting he had a "good heart" and "strong leadership."

"After the earthquake and tsunami, we were desperate. We had absolutely no energy to do anything. I'm glad that they worked for us, prepared food, cleaned and provided the necessities so we could gradually start our lives again," said Megumi Kikuchi, 36, whose home was destroyed by the temblor, said of the volunteers, including Torii. "We were dependent on him (Torii) so much, so I have no idea what it's going to be like once he leaves here."

Torii said he will continue to visit daily and hopes to meet again with the 20 other volunteers who he worked with at the shelter.

"I want to keep being involved. If I do, I will feel the connection" to the people and this place, he said.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Residents line up for breakfast at the shelter at Daini junior high school in Miyako, Japan, on Friday.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Boys play with Nintendos at the shelter.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

A kettle of water stays hot on a kerosene heater.