Recovering From A Triple Disaster

Japan is facing what many humanitarian professionals have called a triple disaster: a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, followed by a raging tsunami of 20- to 30-foot waves, followed by significant damage to its Fukushima nuclear power plant. While Japan is considered a developed country — one of the top 3 economies in the world — the level of damage sustained there is overwhelming for any country. LWR and its partners are there to assist in the road to recovery.

During the last week of June, I traveled to Japan as part of a monitoring visit to better understand the progress of our response. The trip consisted of visits to projects in the Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures in the Tohoku Region, two of the hardest-hit areas.

From what I saw, news reports showing the extent of the damage are not over-hyped. Entire communities were destroyed. Thousands of people were killed, and hundreds of buildings were washed to sea. In one community, the pounding waves lowered the land by a full meter, placing part of a community irreparably below the tide line. Housing, health, infrastructure and livelihoods were severely damaged, and will remain so for years to come.

The Japanese government has exerted tremendous effort in providing food, water, shelter, health care and debris removal — many of the sectors critical during an emergency response. But local governments were overwhelmed by the magnitude of this disaster. Many government buildings were swept away by the tsunami waves. In the affected regions, 80% of the hospitals were partially or completely destroyed, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. In Ishinomaki, one of the worst-hit cities, nearly one-third of the city council members were killed.

This devastation to local capacities and infrastructure means there are still crucial gaps being addressed by relief and development organizations, including LWR and its partners. Some partners are working on pest control, reducing the potential spread of disease and limiting further strains on health systems. Others are providing specially needed items to women and children living in the evacuation centers. Some partners are coordinating volunteers who are eager to help the affected communities begin the process of recovery. Still others are helping survivors access psychological and social care.

One of the most touching visits I experienced was to an organization called Shelter Net, a local partner supported by LWR and Church World Service. Shelter Net runs a hotline for women affected by the emergency. Women who call the hotline are directed to legal or psychological counseling. Others are directed to shelters for victims of domestic violence. The director believes incidences of domestic violence will rise in the future, as families are moved into transitional housing and the stresses of the emergency continue to take their toll. Many women lost their husbands, and facing the lack of privacy in an evacuation center alone is a traumatic proposition; just talking through the scenario with a trained volunteer is often considerable help. The hotline has received more than 45,000 calls since the tsunami, and Shelter Net has closed more than 5,500 cases. Funding is tight — the organization currently operates only a single emergency line which rings as soon as volunteers replace the handset in its cradle. But the women running it are committed to keeping at least one line open as long as they can operate.

Seeing non-profits fills these gaps is a heartening experience. It means donated dollars are put to important and life-saving use, without duplicating work already done by the national and local government. Combined with the continued efforts of the Japanese government and the resilience of local communities, the future for Japan looks difficult, but ultimately very bright.