By Robert Laprade, CARE Emergency Team in Japan
These are my last days in Japan. It has been almost five weeks since the tsunami hit the coast of northern Japan; in many areas it was more than 30 metres 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’s 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 centres 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 metre 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 realise 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, kilometres 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’s not much space to build temporary houses for all evacuees.
When I visited the evacuation centres I saw that many survivors had nothing to do. Many just sat there traumatised. 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 centres we’ve 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 centres 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’ve already been told that we need to remove our kitchen and storehouse as they were located in the classrooms. Evacuation centre 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.
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, 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 visualise 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 pm every day. Everyone seems content to make sacrifices, knowing that in some small way they are paying their respects to the inhabitants of the ravaged north-east coast and making a difference in the lives of survivors.