JAPAN Blogs After the tsunami

Blogs by Robert Laprade from CARE Emergency Team in Japan

April 6, 2011 -- Four weeks later: the challenges ahead
April 1, 2011 -- Only the old ones left
March 25, 2011 -- A post-apocalyptic world
March 23, 2011 -- A blizzard in the disaster zone

April 6, 2011 -- Four weeks later: the challenges ahead

These are my last days in Japan. I am back in Tokyo now and will leave the country on Friday. It has been almost four weeks since the tsunami hit the coast of northern Japan; in many areas it was more than 30 meters high. There are still so many humanitarian needs. Even though infrastructure is getting repaired by the government, with roads being cleared, ports functioning again, and the lights coming back on, it is apparent even to those unfamiliar with emergency work that it will take five to ten years to rebuild the area--at least. Survivors living in evacuation centers or with host families face huge challenges. They will not be going back home anytime soon as many of their houses are now nothing more than a foundation. Others’ homes are partially damaged with windows and doors torn off, filled with a meter of a mixture of mud and miscellaneous, smashed rubbish. The initial shock of the disaster has receded – now it is dawning on many people just how bad their situation really is. They realize that they will not be able to live in their homes soon, if ever, again. It’s a huge challenge for the government. In the first weeks, the focus has rightly been on searching for survivors and remains of victims, putting a roof over the affected people as quickly as possible, and getting basic infrastructure back up and running. Now the government needs to determine how to house people for a longer period before permanent housing can be built. In the fishing towns of Yamada and Otsuchi and many others, most buildings are destroyed—only the wood, metal siding, beams, and contents remain, strewn across the hideous landscape kilometers from where they once stood as offices, houses, and schools. Much of the coastline where the tsunami hit is mountainous. The only flat area is the land lining the coves and inlets wiped almost clean in the disaster. There is not much space to build temporary houses for all evacuees.

The need for distraction

When I visited the evacuation centers I saw that many survivors had nothing to do. Many just sat there traumatized. Others conversed with friends and relatives. Being in close quarters—sleeping, eating, and talking to the same group of people in very cramped space—can be a stressful experience after some time. Many people are still clearly grieving as it is only now becoming clear that they will probably never see their missing loved ones again. In some of the centers, we have been looking at helping with recreational and cultural activities that can help reduce some of the stress and monotony, especially for elderly people who may have extra challenges of mobility. These need to be things that are culturally and socially familiar to them, and that they identify as giving comfort or providing a bit of fun.

The evacuation centers in Yamada where CARE provides hot meals two times a day are located in a school compound. But the school year starts in the next few weeks. That’s another challenge. We have already been told that we need to remove our kitchen and storehouse as they were located in the classrooms. Evacuation center residents are sleeping in the gym and will not be forced to leave. My Japanese CARE colleagues now have to identify new places to store food and supplies and a place to cook. But that’s the nature of humanitarian operations. It is our duty to act in the best interest of those affected. In this case, we want the kids to go back to school, the people who don’t have a home to have a place to live, and to ensure that we can still serve nutritious food for the residents. We need to be flexible in a dynamic environment, finding ways to bring help to survivors and meet the many different needs they have.

Fragile life

The past weeks in Japan have shown me how fragile life is. Whether we live in developed or developing countries, whether in cities or villages, we can never be too secure. I also think we should respond to the humanitarian needs of survivors, no matter in which region of the world they live, even if they happen to come from a “rich” country. The tsunami in Japan also really underlines the importance of disaster risk reduction and early warning systems. Had those systems not been in place, clearly casualties would have been much higher. It was also great to see how people helped each other out in their time of greatest need. The Japanese people have all pulled together, everyone doing their own part to in some way show their support for the victims and survivors. There were numerous donations and offers to host homeless survivors. Inhabitants of Tokyo try to save energy whenever they can. The hotel where I am staying in Tokyo turns out the lights in the lobby when breakfast is over. All the glitter and glamour that you visualize when you think of Japan is toned down. Excessive celebrations during this important time of traditional cherry blossom festivals are even frowned upon. The CARE team in Tokyo is still working long hours, until 10 p.m. every day. Everyone seems content making sacrifices, knowing that in some small way they are paying their respects to the inhabitants of the ravaged Northeast coast and making a difference in the lives of survivors.

April 1, 2011 -- Only the old ones left

Today we distributed hot meals to evacuees in Yamada. Since the tsunami hit northern Japan, many survivors have not received balanced, hot meals on a regular basis. They are mostly surviving on just rice and some occasional fruit. In a situation like this, with cold temperatures and many older people in poor health condition, it is important to get nutritious food in order to stay healthy. Trained cooks and cafeteria staff helped us to prepare the food to ensure cleanliness. We are providing two meals a day in three locations of one big school compound here in Yamada. The evacuees were really happy and thankful. In this rather positive mood we set off to do some further assessment in Otsuchi, a fishing town south of Yamada. When we arrived there, my good mood was suddenly replaced by pure shock. Described by some newspapers as one of the worst hit towns, Otsuchi was in dreadful condition. Here again we could see the destructive force of a tsunami: debris everywhere for kilometers as far as the eye could see—houses, cars, parts of large concrete bridges, large electrical turbines, even a few fire engines strewn across the muddy landscape as if a giant child had emptied his set of Legos and children’s toys into a muddy, dirty sandbox. In the areas where the waves had reached their maximum incursion inland, some houses were but left with one to two meters of grey, ugly mud that now covers everything. Within that mud, everything imaginable is mixed. Driving through the area of Otsuchi where some of these houses survived, we saw elderly people digging in the mud, trying to find even just a few belongings that can remind them of the world they once knew.

We talked to one woman, who was picking around the smelly mud. She was around 70 years old. The tsunami took her husband away. When we approached her, she had just dug a few dishes out and squatted around a plastic bowl where she cleaned them in water. It was cold outside but she wanted to rescue her few little things; it was all that she had left. She told us that even though a few volunteers came to help, she was really doing the cleaning all by herself. Her house was still standing, but everything inside was destroyed. It was really heart-wrenching. The tears from my CARE Japanese colleagues ran down their cheeks for five minutes; I think it was a blessing that I required a translation and could not understand everything she said. We were so far away from the glittery, high-tech world of Tokyo that we see from the movies and TV about Japan. People here did not possess much to begin with, most lived in small duplex houses, provided by the government and which looked like trailers. This was a fishing area. Those young, agile, and educated enough have long gone to the cities to find better paid work. Only the old ones were left.

A burned out ghost town

We met another woman together with her husband. Both were also digging through the mud, looking for a few valuables. She told me she was the youngest around here – and she was already 60 years of age. She pointed to some of the houses, saying that almost all of the inhabitants are 80 years and older. Most of them are just physically not able to clean the mud from their houses. They need help. They were questioning why the municipality did not help them. When we drove about a kilometer over a hilly outcropping and gazed out over a small bay we realized why nobody would help for a very, very long time. The entire commercial and downtown residential area of Otsuchi was gone. Washed away. The mayor died—so did anybody else who remained behind or couldn’t run fast enough when the warning sirens went off. From the hill, it looked like a bomb hit this town. Probably only one in twenty buildings were even recognizable as buildings—just foundations or a post or two of metal, maybe a half wall here and there. When entering this burned out ghost town of mangled metal, concrete, and mud, I noticed an overhead highway sign that remained standing. It indicated that Sendai is 230 kilometers away--230 kilometers to the center of tsunami impact. How in the world could it look worse than here?

After this awful excursion into hell, we went back to Yamada. I am glad that we could provide the people here nutritious food. And we’ll do more of it elsewhere. Afterall, it’s people like the women we met who are the residents of the evacuation centers. There is so much work to do.

March 25, 2011 -- A post-apocalyptic world

After we had an early morning planning session over Japanese breakfast, we drove to the coast of Iwate prefecture. We came to a small city called Miyako, and while we were driving around the corner of what seemed like a normal street, all of sudden we arrived in hell. Before us lay total destruction. Cars were upside down, metal parts were scattered everywhere. The bizarre thing was that we looked on one side of the road and there was a supermarket, perfectly standing without a scratch. On the other side of the road, it was total destruction. But it got worse. We drove into Yamada town and there almost the entire downtown area was wiped out. Yamada is a fishing town, and some people farmed oysters and seaweed. Amongst the rubble and mud, fishing gear, nets and floats were strung everywhere. What was once the professional equipment of fishermen now lay like garland on a Christmas tree, but the ‘trees’ were mangled pieces of houses. Heaps of furniture and personal belongings and just about anything one could imagine stuck out of the mass of muck. The area of destruction was three to four square kilometres; we could not see the end of it. I was amazed how quickly the Japanese government has cleared the main roads. We drove through Yamada on perfectly clean, paved roads, but rubble and debris were piled up to ten metres on both sides.

A novel-like scene

While working our way through the maze of roads, I noticed through gaps in the debris that all houses built higher than 20 metres above sea level stood untouched by the wave. The city hall stood on a small hill and it survived without a scratch. However, right in front a field of cars, house parts, and machinery were burnt almost beyond recognition – black, burnt heaps of debris. I remember the pictures on television when the tsunami came in with rafts of burning rubbish; this now was how it looked after the water receded. Much of it reminded me of the post-apocalyptic world described in the novel The Road.

We entered the city hall looking for officials to whom we could explain our work and get permission to start looking for a base for operations. On the ground floor of the city hall, we sighted a billboard where people left notes for their lost loved ones in case they miraculously showed up looking for them. In another room, the search teams had placed wet and ragged photo albums they had found in the rubble. For some people, these memories are all they have left. We found the mayor on the second floor; he was a very friendly man who told us with a big hospitable smile that he lost his home. However, this was not the first time he experienced a large tsunami. In the 1960s, an earthquake in Chile triggered a series of waves which also smashed the coast of Yamada. He told us that Yamada has 21,000 inhabitants and that around 7,000 people are displaced living in about 30 shelters in schools, temples, and community centres. Around 1,500 families still live in their houses but cannot get out due to lack of gasoline or roads blocked by trash left by the tsunami. Currently there is no functioning grocery store anywhere to be found in Yamada itself so walking for food is not an option.

"Our lives have fallen apart"

After meeting the mayor we went to an elementary school. Around 100 people were sheltered there. They told us that in the evenings inhabitants of the surrounding villages come by and the evacuees share their meals with them because they have no means to go and buy food. In one of the rooms used clothing lay on the floor and was being sorted. These were certainly donations, waiting to be distributed. However, we also heard that the food arriving at the shelter is not enough and often a meal of just rice. We talked to a group of women, all of them sitting on their mattresses. One woman told me that she and her family survived the tsunami but her home is completely gone. All her neighbours are dead. She was around 60 years old and the youngest of the group. She said they are all fishermen here but now have lost their boats, their nets and their income. She also did not know whether her insurance will cover her losses, since all her papers were washed away. “Our lives have fallen apart”.

When we drove to another evacuation centre, it started snowing again. Giant white snow flakes fell down. It is still freezing here. In this high school, 800 people have sought shelter. In the gym, mattress lay next to mattress. This place was really crowded. Although orderly, it did not look very comfortable. There was a stage which was now the office of the centre. We passed by the kitchen where three shifts of evacuees cooked whatever was delivered by the local government from donations from around Japan. Army trucks arrived and helped in delivering relief items; we were told the troops also regularly cooked rice for the evacuees.

Tomorrow we plan to go further north but tonight I will focus on putting together a strategic plan for a CARE emergency response while my colleagues Alain and Futaba will begin to write an operational plan to scale up our assistance. We need to locate key relief items and how to get them to the people who need them the most. We are looking at beginning a program to ensure that the nutritional value of meals prepared for evacuees is improved through the introduction of vegetables and fish or meat. Authorities have been overwhelmed in the search for survivors, getting roads cleared, and looking for missing people and just haven’t had the time. Japanese people are used to having good hot food for every meal just as we are at home, so it’s quite a hardship when they’ve lost loved ones, are suffering through incredible trauma, and can’t even get a decent meal. Many evacuees are elderly or children and good nutrition is especially important to keeping up their health in crowded, cold conditions.

March 23, 2011 -- A blizzard in the disaster zone

Today we have arrived in Northern Japan. We flew from Tokyo, Japan’s capital city, to Aomori and then drove down to the city of Morioka in the Iwate prefecture. It is freezing here, like a blizzard. There is one meter of snow and it is really, really cold. My Canadian colleague Alain said to me:” I feel like we are in Canada!” We have heard that there are Japanese who have lost their homes but who have not sought shelter in the collective centres. I don’t want to imagine how it must be for those who live in their destroyed houses, without windows, without any electricity, without heating. At the moment, the elements are clearly not in favour for Japan.

Morioka looks like a normal modern city in a rich developed country. It is unbelievable that just a few kilometres from here such massive destruction from the earthquake and the tsunami took place almost two weeks ago. After we have arrived we went to the Disaster Prevention Centre. People were buzzing around, doing all kinds of coordination, managing the emergency response. It looked like a command centre, and we also saw many Japanese military walking through the halls. Search and rescue teams were there; one person was wearing a T-Shirt that read “Christchurch New Zealand”. He must have come straight from New Zealand, where another earthquake struck the country just a few weeks ago.

Just enough fuel for one day

At the Disaster Prevention Centre we met with local authorities and got a voucher for fuel. Getting fuel is still an enormous challenge. On the way, we passed by a line at the gas station that stretched for many kilometres. It went over a bridge and up a hill and it was so long, we could not even see the end of it. Since CARE is involved in the emergency response, we were entitled to receive one tank of fuel and whenever we need more, we have to go back to the centre, which is open for 24 hours every day. I sincerely hope that the fuel will last long enough to bring us to the coast and back tomorrow!

After receiving our fuel, we went to the Volunteer Coordination Centre and talked to the staff for quite a while. It was our aim to get a sense of the challenges for the emergency response and to find out how CARE can fill the gaps. In coordinating with other organizations and the local authorities we will ensure not to duplicate any efforts and only assist in those areas where the Japanese emergency response is stretched and simply needs our help. We learned that many areas are indeed now accessible. But we also learned that some local authorities are wiped out, they basically don’t exist any longer. And even though Japan has great emergency response measures in place a disaster like this would overwhelm any government. This is a very tough situation.

In the same building where the volunteer centre is located a couple of hundred survivors of the disaster have found shelters. I just peeked into the room but saw people sleeping on thin mattresses placed on the floor. In the lobby, some kids were playing soccer. We heard people in some centres may not be receiving adequate hot meals, or nutritious meals. Tomorrow, we will visit some more of these collective centres in Yamada and Otsuchi, two affected cities along the coast. There we will find out what people need and how CARE can help the Japanese emergency effort to ensure that no survivor is left out.”

Read more stories about CARE's response in Japan.