AmeriCares relief workers in Japan completed our first relief convoy over the weekend with deliveries of several tons of basic supplies to evacuation shelters in the devastated Miyagi prefecture. The delivery provides direct aid to survivors of the massive 9.0-strength earthquake and tsunami that claimed nearly 11,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
With more than 16,000 people still missing, lack of fuel and other logistical issues continue to restrict access to some tsunami-affected areas and complicate relief efforts. Humanitarian agencies, now in the third week of providing emergency assistance at more than 2,000 evacuation centers set up in schools and other public buildings, are working to supply food, water, hygiene items, warm clothing and medicine to hundreds of thousands of families whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
Working with a local partner, AmeriCares distributed hundreds of cases of hygiene items – including soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and paste, diapers, baby wipes and bottled water – to shelters in the hard-hit cities of Iwanuma, Watari and Yamamoto in northeast Japan.
An AmeriCares relief worker in Sendai, Christopher Craig reported on conditions in Yamamoto, the most devastated of the three cities visited by AmeriCares during the distribution. “In Yamamoto, where the destruction was nearly complete, dozens of cars serve as supplementary shelters since the few buildings left that can be used as shelters are already filled beyond capacity,” he said.
In each location, the AmeriCares relief team spoke with shelter managers about additional needs for supplies, including food items, to begin preparing additional convoys for the next distributions of aid. Medical services, psychological support particularly for post-traumatic distress disorder (PTSD), sanitation and preventing the spread of contagious illnesses including influenza and legionella among evacuees remain high priorities. An added concern for many of the shelters are the thousands of people living in their homes without electricity, water or access to basic supplies who also rely on the evacuation centers for assistance.
Government officials have initiated a massive effort to construct over 30,000 temporary homes in the next two months, and more will be requested of the Federation of Housing Production in the coming weeks. Entire coastal towns were swept away by the tsunami, making this the largest natural disaster in Japan’s history with the cost of damage estimated at more than $300 billion.
To extend support to smaller Japanese community organizations and NGOs, AmeriCares is also launching a flash grants program to help them maintain or expand their emergency activities to meet the most urgent needs of disaster-affected communities.
The AmeriCares team began mobilizing within hours of the first reports of the dual disasters on March 11, dispatching an emergency response manager to Tokyo to direct the efforts of our relief workers in Sendai, the largest city closest to the impact zone. Our team is in direct contact with local officials, evacuation shelters and hospitals treating the injured and caring for evacuees in Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate to determine health needs.
Based on early assessments and the anticipated need for humanitarian aid to last many months, AmeriCares is expanding our team on the ground and setting up an office in Tokyo to coordinate our relief efforts. In addition, AmeriCares is working with our donor companies in Japan and meeting with doctors in Miyagi prefecture hospitals to assess and fill acute shortages of medicines..
Much of the crisis response continues to come from the local disaster management committees who organize and run the more than 2,000 evacuation centers set up in local prefectures. Hospitals and the local committees are reporting shortages of medicines to AmeriCares, particularly chronic care medicines.
“We are now concentrating on the immediate health needs of the affected population, particularly of those families living in shelters,” said Michelle Jackson, AmeriCares emergency response manager. “Looking ahead, we know from our three decades of experience that emergencies of this magnitude can overwhelm even the most prepared countries, and we are prepared to help with the daunting task of meeting the basic needs of hundreds of thousands of evacuees – many of whom are elderly and have health conditions that require ongoing attention."
Emergency work continues in attempts to cool the damaged reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant, as fears of radiation exposure remain high. Officials in Japan have reported that radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s tap water and that radiation has seeped into raw milk, soil, vegetables, and seawater prompting the U.S. and Australia to halt imports of Japanese dairy and produce from the region and other countries to require Japan perform safety checks on meat, seafood and other food products.
AmeriCares is monitoring the situation closely, evaluating health risks to ensure the safety of our relief workers.