On 11 March 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 hit off the eastern coast of Japan. It was the fourth biggest earthquake ever recorded. An enormous tsunami swept in and caused massive destruction. Around 11,000 people have been confirmed dead and 18,000 are still missing. Despite the ability of the Japanese government to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis, this disaster has deeply affected the country and has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Rescue and other critical emergency work have been further hampered by a nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture, a result of the earthquake itself.
Two weeks after the disaster, over 180,000 people are living in evacuation centers. Evacuation centers are typically public buildings such as schools, community centers, and temples. Temperatures are cold and it continues to snow. Some people are living in partially destroyed houses in freezing temperatures, and many are not able to leave to buy food as fuel is not available. In addition neighborhood streets are blocked by debris several meters high.
The challenges and needs
Right after the disaster a convoy organized by CARE Japan drove to the city of Kamaishi inIwate prefecture, one of the most hit areas, and handed relief items such as toilet paper, water, face masks, sanitary tissues, biscuits, fruits and small portions of rice to the local government which is coordinating the emergency response. A CARE International emergency team has been deployed Japan to assist CARE Japan with the emergency response. They identified that housing, livelihoods, education, and the emotional trauma of such an event will be major issues that need to be addressed in the medium and long-term. Large numbers of the population in the affected areas were elderly, many of them women, and they are especially vulnerable. The needs are prevalent along the entire coastline of five prefectures including areas just east of Tokyo, but the most acute problems are in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Many challenges are hampering the relief effort: the complete destruction of infrastructure, fuel shortages, and the tragic death of many local authorities usually assigned to manage emergencies.
The sheer power of the tsunami spared few houses. Around 400,000 people have to rebuild from scratch. Insurance coverage for tsunami damage remains unsure; earthquake insurance is usually available in Japan, but coverage for tsunami-caused loss (the vast majority of damages are from the tsunami, not the earthquake) is not clear. CARE staff spoke to many survivors and most of them were worried about their future. Many people are private business owners, and coastal communities depend on fishing, tourism, and other activities related to the sea. Assets such as boats, shops, equipment owned by small entrepreneurs and locally-based large business owners employing significant numbers of people have been wiped out.
Survivors have been through emotional upheaval: aftershocks of the earthquake, uncertainty of the effectiveness of large tsunami barriers that people believed protected them from the sea, and the lingering threat of the nuclear disaster leaves everyone in the affected area with anxiety about the future. Despite close familial and community ties maintained by Japanese society, it is the economic reality that younger people migrate to more prosperous urban centers – and the predominately older population has been left isolated in the rural region.
CARE’s medium and long term response
CARE will focus on the needs of directly affected families and communities. We will focus on assisting the overall Japanese emergency relief effort and the needs which currently exceed local capacity. CARE is committed to build upon local capacities without duplicating efforts. We will work closely with local governments, volunteer organizations, and mostly importantly, will respect survivors’ capacity for leading their own recovery.
CARE will target 20,000 beneficiaries in coastal communities of Iwate Prefecture. Target beneficiaries will be people living in evacuation centers or evacuees who may move to temporary shelters. CARE staff will provide, as required, regular nutritionally balanced hot meals, as well as essential relief items. Furthermore, CARE will work on simple upgrades of evacuation centers to make them more habitable. People who live in partially damaged houses will be able to repair their houses with materials handed out to them by CARE. Since psychosocial relief is as important as material rehabilitation, CARE will facilitate conditions for appropriate communal cultural and spiritual healing practices, with primary support for elderly people. In the long term, CARE will review community based disaster preparedness and early warning systems; CARE will document its findings and observations and engage in advocacy, together with other Japanese organizations, and seek to assist future disaster preparedness and response.