Japan: Red Cross teams fuel hope for survivors

Published: 24 March 2011 14:55 CET

By Kathy Mueller, communications delegate

“The lack of fuel is a major problem for us. It is hampering our ability to assess, and is thereby making it difficult for us to get the full picture.”

“It’s frustrating. A lot of people want to volunteer. They want to help, but there is no fuel to get them where help is needed most.”

“Some buses are operating again, but sporadically. Because of bad road conditions and limited access to fuel, they can’t run their usual routes.”

These are just some of the comments made by emergency personnel from the Japanese Red Cross Society, who are trying to assist the hundreds of thousands of people devastated by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

Iwate prefecture was one of the areas hardest hit. Located several hours’ drive north of the epicentre, 70 kilometres of its coastline was obliterated by the ten-metre-high wave. Electricity, for the most part, is still out. Water pipes were broken along the entire length of the affected area. There are 2,773 confirmed dead in this prefecture alone; another 5,000 are still missing; and about 370 evacuation centres have been set up to house the 45,000 survivors – many as young as two and others in their eighties.

“People are definitely relieved to see us,” says Hidenobu Yokomatsu, a Red Cross logistician. “But it’s a major challenge for us to try to meet their needs. Whether it’s medical care or clothing, we just don’t have access to the amount of fuel needed to carry out such a large relief operation,” he continued.

The situation should improve soon – one of Japan’s largest oil refineries, in Yokohama, has recently resumed operations and will provide 270,000 barrels of oil a day. Whilst this is expected to significantly ease the current fuel shortage, the benefit is not being seen at the petrol pumps just yet.

As we leave Tokyo and head closer to the disaster zone, the longer the queues at service centres, some stretching for up to 2 kilometres. Some petrol stations have closed completely, whilst others are giving priority to emergency vehicles, including the Red Cross, although we too are rationed and only allowed to fill up with 10 litres at a time.

Fuel isn’t the only road block for those trying to help. Bad weather has grounded the helicopters that were delivering supplies. It snows on a daily basis, with temperatures hovering above the freezing mark, and evacuation centres often have little or no heat. Children run and play to keep warm. The elderly wrap themselves in blankets; the Japanese Red Cross Society has distributed about 125,000 already.

Despite all these challenges, progress is being made. Many evacuees are now getting three meals a day. Thousands are returning home as electricity is restored, and the government has started building more than 33,000 temporary shelters. Optimism about the future, however, is also in short supply.

“It’s very hard to see the reality. It is overwhelming,” says Hidenobu Yokomatsu. “We feel for the people. You can’t get that from watching the images on television. A young man came up to me the other day and asked: ‘How do you see the situation? Is there hope?’ I had no answer for him.”