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An AmeriCares Relief Worker Reports from Sendai on the Epic Disaster in Japan

  • March 22, 2011

Christopher Craig, relief worker with AmeriCares emergency response team in Japan, provides his personal view from Miyagi prefecture and the city of Sendai, as he works to help survivors of the epic disaster.

On the ground here in Miyagi, an unsettling gulf separates the experiences of people across Japan since the recent earthquake. My wife and I and others who live in Sendai shared a very different experience from the one endured by those who live just outside the city center.  

A short venture out of the city gives a keen impression of who really needs support. While we suffer the inconvenience of no hot water, very little fuel, and long lineups for limited supplies of food, a stop at any of the dozens of makeshift emergency shelters in the eastern section of the city exposes the triviality of these concerns.

Until late last week, those huddled in these shelters were divided into two groups. The first of these were people from the local area, trying to maintain a semblance of normal life in the shelters as their homes remained without power, water or both. With these services largely restored within the city limits, last week saw many of these families return home; although a disturbing number of older people were instead removed to hospitals to treat illnesses they had either brought with them or picked up at the shelter.  The immediate and longer-term needs of the large elderly population in the region are a particular concern for the AmeriCares emergency response team.

The second group in Sendai shelters consists of tsunami survivors from the coastal areas. These are the people with no place to go back to. For some, their home and even entire village may have disappeared completely.  Families are packed wherever they can fit, most of whom have few or no possessions and many of whom lost friends and loved ones when the wave hit. Their lives are now defined by uncertainty and great loss.

Without homes, there is no end in sight for their stays in the shelters. Food and water are coming in, but there is little indication of a long-term schedule of these deliveries and the scarcity of gasoline in the area makes every shipment a relief to evacuees and shelter coordinators alike.  Medical concerns add to the list of potential problems. Although the health of shelter residents seems to be holding up for the moment, local doctors and medical specialists from NGOs have begun to tour the prefecture to guard against the spread of influenza and other contagious diseases. The general attitude here and based on the AmeriCares experience in responding to other disasters suggests that such a spread is all but inevitable.

Christopher Craig, AmeriCares relief worker, reporting on the situation in the winter snow of Sendai

Christopher Craig, AmeriCares relief worker, reporting on the situation in the winter snow of Sendai

At the same time, the local response, both from those inside and outside of the shelters, is a great source of hope. Sendai put out a call for volunteers to work at shelters and to help clean up damage from the disaster and thousands of mostly young people have answered. In the shelters, attitudes remain positive, with reports all over of people who have lost everything urging aid providers to move on and help the people in harder hit areas. Just yesterday I heard a person in Ishinomaki express concern for the residents of Kesennuma and spoke to another from Kesennuma who said that the people of Ishinomaki needed help more than she did. The spirit of cooperation here is so strong that, provided supply lines remain viable and needed items continue to come in, the hope is that the prefecture and the region will be able to come back stronger than ever.

The Record Earthquake

The island nation is confronting the catastrophic damage from a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck northern Japan on Friday, March 11, unleashing a deadly tsunami and causing major destruction along coastal towns. The tsunami that followed the quake with frightening speed and power wiped away everything in its path three miles inland.

This is the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, and it is the largest in Japan’s recorded history. Scientists at the US Geological Survey report that the force of the quake moved parts of eastern Japan as much as 12 feet closer to North America, as well as shifting the earth on its axis some 6.5 inches.    

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