Growing need for psychosocial support to earthquake victims in Kumamoto

Published: 21 June 2016 5:02 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Two months after two powerful earthquakes struck Kumamoto Prefecture, around 10,000 people are still living in evacuation centres and need assistance from the Japanese Red Cross Society and other relief providers.

“Many weeks that have passed since the disaster and the long term stress is starting to take its toll. The need for psychosocial support is greater than ever,” said Ms Chikako Itagaki, Chief Nurse at the Japanese Red Cross Society Medical Centre. She is in charge of Red Cross psychosocial activities at Mashiki Gymnasium, where 2,000 evacuees still remain. So far, the Red Cross has reached over 1,700 people with psychosocial support.

Red Cross staff and volunteers are doing what they can to improve the living conditions in the gymnasium. “One of the issues that made many people uncomfortable was the total lack of privacy in the centre. This is why we have placed small cabins where they could change clothes. Even small things like this can make a big difference for people’s psychological wellbeing,” said Ms Itagaki.

Hundreds of people are still living in their cars in the parking lots outside the evacuation centre. One of them is Kayoko Kaizaki, who together with her husband and two daughters has erected a large improvised tent made of tarpaulins beside the family van. As part of their relief efforts, the Red Cross distributed more than 11,000 tarpaulins to affected people.

“It is very difficult for us to move out, because our whole life is centred here,” Kayoko said. “We hardly have any clothes except those we were wearing when our house collapsed. Our friends and family have offered us a place to stay, but our teenage daughter has bulimia and many other problems. We are trying everything we can to help her overcome her sickness and just recently bought a therapy dog for her. Having a pet makes it even harder to expect someone to put up with us,” said Kayoko.

According to Ms Hazuki Sawada, a nurse specializing in psychosocial care from Fukaya Red Cross Hospital, many of the evacuees are deeply concerned about their lost incomes and see no way of restoring their livelihood.

“In their interviews with the Red Cross psychosocial staff, people often begin by speaking of their fears of the earthquake and their flashbacks from those terrifying moments. They also have no clue about what to do with their lives, or how they could leave the evacuation centre.” 

Mao, an eight-year-old girl who was visiting the evacuation centre with her mother and little brother, is just one of many children traumatised by their terrifying experience.

“I had a nightmare about a terrible earthquake last night. The house collapsed and the road was full of cracks,” said Mao. The family moved in with their relatives after the earthquake left their home severely damaged. Seven of her classmates also lost their homes and are facing a similar situation. 

For the Japanese Red Cross there are many lessons to be learned from this unprecedented disaster in regard to disaster preparedness and risk reduction.

“In case of large magnitude earthquakes it is impossible to completely prevent damage, but we need to learn from each experience and be prepared to do everything in our power to ensure the safety of the people who are affected,” said Mr Tadateru Konoé, President of the Japanese Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The main role of the Japanese Red Cross Society is to provide medical relief to disaster victims during disasters, but we are also constantly building our capacity in other types of emergency relief and working with municipalities to reduce disaster risk and ensure a high level of preparedness at all levels of society."