The long road to recovery one year on from the earthquake and tsunami

Published: 8 March 2012 16:16 CET

By Francis Markus

One year after Japan’s worst recorded natural disaster, the area hit by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami is showing clear signs of recovery. The tsunami caused devastation along a 700km stretch of coastline on the north east of Japan’s Honshu Island. Now, almost 70 per cent of the estimated 22 million tons of debris has been painstakingly cleared, electricity and communications have been restored and local businesses are slowly re-establishing themselves.

But progress in the hardest-hit towns is slow. Large scale rebuilding of permanent homes has yet to begin, and survivors are anxious about the lack of clear reconstruction plans, particularly those families who were evacuated following the Fukushima nuclear accident who are also anxious about the possible long-term health effects of the disaster.

The Japanese Red Cross Society, which deployed nearly 900 medical teams and hundreds of psychosocial workers to support the relief operation, is now focused on addressing the needs of more than 300,000 people living in temporary accommodation.

“We are doing our utmost to make people comfortable, even though the conditions are cramped and cold in winter. We are also helping to prevent many elderly survivors from falling into emotional isolation and physical inactivity,” said Tadateru Konoe, President of both the Japanese Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The Red Cross has provided more than 125,000 families in temporary housing with a set of six electrical appliances – including a rice cooker, hot water dispenser, microwave and electric heaters – have been distributed to many of the most vulnerable to help them stay warm amid sub-zero winter temperatures. Thousands of these items were provided by ECHO, the humanitarian arm of the European Union.

Psychosocial teams have shifted their focus away from the evacuation centres – now virtually empty – to temporary housing settlements where they organise activities, such as tea parties and massage sessions for elderly residents.

“People have lost not only their homes, but also their jobs,” Sachiko Abe, a Red Cross psychosocial coordinator in Iwate Prefecture, said. “What they have lost is so great that it’s difficult for them to comes to terms with it and move forward; so I feel they really need psychosocial support.”

Dr Toshiharu Makishima has been one of the leading pioneers of psychosocial support ever since, as a Red Cross surgeon, he witnessed the emotional needs of refugees fleeing the genocidal violence in Rwanda in 1994. He said: “The number of people attending these sessions has increased, showing that they are becoming more sustainable and the residents themselves are reaching out to those most in need.”

In Fukushima Prefecture, conflicting information about the long-term health impact of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, are adding to a sense of confusion and anxiety.

One prominent Japanese doctor, who worked in Belarus in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has advised that pregnant women and young children would be best advised to evacuate from large swathes of the prefecture, including Fukushima City. But a senior physician in the city of Nagasaki has said he believes the current radiation levels are not a cause for serious concern.

In the face of this, Hisao Ohta, chairman of the Fukushima Red Cross Chapter said that it was up to each individual to decide what they feel safe with. “One person might decide that they feel better living with their family even with a higher level of radiation and they will be fine, whereas another person may feel unsafe and decide to move, but they may still not feel right,” he said.

What that means in practice is that wellness is made up of both physical and psychological factors.

That’s very much the thinking behind the decision to set up the Smile Park project, an indoor playground aimed at the many children in Fukushima whose families don’t feel it’s safe for them to play out of doors.

“Today I feel very grateful to the Red Cross for creating an indoor play area like this; my two kids look very happy, and they don’t want to go home,” says one mother, Tamami Morino. “We initially registered them for two hours, and then extended their stay for four hours.”

It’s clear that the Red Cross will need to play a continuing role in supporting the needs of communities into the future. Also central to the National Society’s response is the conviction that people must have more information and be better prepared for eventualities like this.

In May, the IFRC together with the Japanese Red Cross Society will host an international conference in Japan. President Konoe said it will provide an opportunity to think about the way such crises are dealt with in the future. “We are taking the lead in getting our international partners together to draw up new guidelines on nuclear accident preparedness.”

Global donations have allowed the Red Cross to make a real difference in helping survivors of the tsunami to regain their resilience. International funding includes a generous donation of 40 billion yen (465 million CHF/385 million EUR/505 million USD) from the government of Kuwait, targetted at the three worst-hit prefectures. 

More than 53 billion yen (637 million CHF/528 million EUR/693 Million USD) has been donated through national Red Cross Red Crescent societies worldwide. These funds are helping to make residents in temporary housing more comfortable, as well as supporting the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and children. They are also going towards the construction of temporary hospitals and clinics.