Japan: Recovery to start from zero

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A woman at a north Japanese shelter supported by ACT Alliance laments that the unthinkable has happened to her people, and uncertainty still plagues them.

“You know, we thought this kind of disaster was something that happened in far away countries, and we never expected that it would happen to us. Aftershocks come every three minutes. It is still unbelievable to think what has happened here.”

Then she offers visitors to the shelter a piece of steamed sweet potato, her spirit of generosity stronger than her own wish to eat.

The scale of the twin earthquake and tsunami, with the threat of nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has now been compounded by severely cold weather. Although Japan is equipped with superior disaster response mechanisms, even it is struggling to deal with the disaster. Police report that 27,000 people are dead or missing since March 11. About 300,000 people are living in over 2300 official evacuation sites across Japan, with possibly thousands more in unregistered centres, putting the number of people living at evacuation sites at possibly well over 500,000.

ACT is helping 25,000 people receive basic relief and medical care in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures in northeastern Japan. One member, Church World Service, is supplying mobile medical services to three shelters in Natori, Iwanuma and Rakuzentakata cities, treating 700 patients a week for influenza, upper respiratory infections, stomach infections, skin diseases and wound infections, along with vomiting and fever.

The number of people presenting with symptoms of stress has risen, as has the demand for medicines for pre-existing conditions. Influenza and other infections continue to spread, due to the cold and dry air, with stress and fatigue common among evacuees. CWS is offering counselling to pregnant women and families with very young children at the centres.

CWS has rented temporary toilets and electricity generators. Plans are underway to set up an innovative system to power LED lights from car batteries with re-charging systems using solar panels.

ACT is also on standby to provide the National Christian Council in Japan with disaster response experts. ACT member, the Lutheran World Federation, is working closely with Lutheran churches in Japan. Although the ACT constitution pledges priority to developing rather than developed countries, CWS has launched a US$2.59 million appeal for relief.

The faces of the disaster

ACT meets some of the people struggling in the face of this monster disaster.

In Miyagi prefecture, Mr Abe, a member of the prefecture's social welfare council, disagrees with the government line on accommodating people.

Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, once a peaceful harbour city with lots of fisherman and seafood processing plants, was one of the most severely hit areas. Now all that can be seen are the surreal sights of smashed houses, cars on top of graveyards, and ships on top of houses. All this, combined with the smell of oil, seawater and sewage hanging in the air.

“There are simply too many people… and we have not even grasped the total number of people who need assistance,” says Abe, a middle-aged, energetic man who has lived his life in the city and who is now in charge of a disaster volunteer centre.

Organising evacuation sites in Ishinomaki city has been challenging, he says. “This is our fault. We didn’t really have room in our thoughts to consider the proper management of evacuation sites until now, resulting in different evacuation sites being managed differently, making them difficult to coordinate with each other.”

Although a member of the government relief structure, Abe’s ideas differ from the government’s plans for temporary shelters. “We would like to have temporary shelters for each affected ward instead of forcing people to scatter around. A sense of being with community members is very important in rehabilitation.” He said the Japanese government could do with help from other countries.

When CWS reached Ishinomaki city at 5am one morning, kilometres of cars were lined up, waiting for a share of gasoline. Abe says gasoline supplies are totally out. “We cannot use our cars at all, and my wife is also moving around by bicycle for hours to get to work.” He conceded that he too was struggling to cope.

The disaster volunteer centre starts its chaotic day with a meeting to discuss priorities. As the leader of this centre, Abe works day and night, despite the fact that he and his family also need to recover. His phone rings constantly. Other members of the centre want his advice. When asked what people’s needs are, Abe says the question is difficult to answer as it is actually quite vague. “If people can come up with list of things available, it makes it easier for us to say ‘yes, we need this, but not this’.”

Accounting for each other

Yoshiaki Shoji is a licensed tax accountant in Miyagi. Because many companies end their fiscal year in March, Shoji was busy working with a client to meet a deadline when the earthquake struck. “There were three earthquakes in total that we felt. When we turned on the radio, it said that a tsunami was coming towards us. I saw people on bicycles screaming ‘escape now!’ Then the scream changed to ‘it’s come!’” That’s the moment Shoji started running, at the same yelling to others to do the same. He made it to a school building. Five seconds later, he would have been dead.

Shoji now heads an evacuation site established an elementary school in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture - one of the worst-hit areas. A total of 500 people live at this site, but the daily flow of people through swells to around 2300. Everything from food and water to underwear and care for the elderly remains scarce. He is desperately trying to match those needs with what’s available.

The temperature in Miyagi regularly falls below zero. CWS was able only recently to locate stoves for the evacuees. “It is so cold, and it gets to the point that our body starts to ache so much and we cannot bear the pain,” Shoji says.

After weeks of suffering, medical care and hot meals are now order of the day at this site.  However, Shoji says basic items are never enough and they need to worry about tomorrow on daily basis.

Referring to the many elderly staying at this evacuation site, Shoji explains that Japan has five categories to show the level of care elderly need. The first rank is people requiring the least support. Rank five is people requiring the most. “Even those who were ranked one became three after this disaster. It is sort of like a panic syndrome that they cannot accept the current circumstance.” Younger family members are caring for their elderly but are getting to the point of just being too tired, he said.

Relief goods may be arriving steadily, but not enough not quickly enough. It may look encouraging to see people supporting one another but in such harsh winter weather without enough to eat, drink or wear, stress and fatigue is increasing. Today’s priority for Shoji: find toilet paper, tissue paper and batteries.

“Houses gone, jobs gone, families scattered”

Hideaki Aonuma fled to the mountains when the tsunami came after him. “I did not see the tsunami as I did not look back,” he explains. “There were over 1000 people on the hill where I escaped to, and we stayed there for the whole night. Then when I came to see my house one day later, the house was destroyed and all furniture washed away.”

The 33-year-old from Miyagi prefecture is among tens of thousands in Ishinomaki city who experienced the same terror. The quiet man that he is, he answered CWS’ questions one by one with short sentences. His hands were firmly gripped demonstrating his nervousness during the interview. “Influenza is spreading,” he said quietly when asked about conditions in the school room that he must now call home.

Other evacuees in the school told CWS that water, gas and electricity were not available. There was nothing to hint at future plans for them. “Houses gone, jobs gone, families scattered, we don’t know how long we should stay here and where we should go next,” one evacuee said. They all say the government was too slow to respond and not open about what it was doing. Temporary shelters were built in areas not affected by the disaster, simply because building products were available in these areas.

Some evacuees stayed several nights in the open air in snowy weather before they got to this school. One said, “I climbed up to the roof and stayed there for one night. Then I went down after one day to the second floor of my house, gathered whatever I could find, and came to this school.”

The port area in Ishinomaki is totally destroyed. Factories that once employed hundreds of people were washed away. Fishermen lost boats and fishing nets. Recovery, seemingly, will have to start from zero.