Japan: Second disaster looms for elderly survivors

Published: 18 March 2011 16:12 CET

By Patrick Fuller

In many respects, the 11 March tsunami on Japan’s north-east is rapidly becoming a disaster affecting the elderly. The three evacuation centres in the shattered town of Otsuchi in the prefecture of Iwate are filled with the old and infirm. Many are too tired or too sick to do little but lie on mattresses on the floor, swathed in blankets.

Takanori Watanabe, a Red Cross doctor from Himeji, in western Japan, arrived in Otsuchi as part of a 12-person mobile medical team which runs daily clinics around the evacuation centres. Today, the team is based in the in the infirmary of Otsuchi high school, where about 700 people fill the floor space of the school’s gymnasium. The infirmary only has two beds, one being used by an elderly woman who is barely conscious and the other by an old man attached to an intravenous drip, who is badly dehydrated.

Most of the patients coming to the clinic are elderly and many have lost their regular medication in the disaster. 

“There are a lot of people with chronic conditions and today, it’s cold so some people have fallen ill. We’ve had a bad stomach virus going around so a lot of people are getting diarrhoea and becoming dehydrated,” he says. The Red Cross teams have a limited variety of medicine and since supplies are limited patients are getting just three days' supply.

Another member of Dr Watanabe’s team trained in psychological counselling sits in the corner, quietly comforting a teenage girl who is sobbing with her head in her hands. Everyone in Otsuchi has lost someone. A relative, a friend, a neighbour – the entire town has been affected. Helping people to overcome trauma is a major issue and teams of Red Cross counsellors are being deployed to combat the stress-related illnesses that are beginning to emerge.

Certainly, life in the evacuation centres isn’t easy for either the young or old. Ayumi Yamazaki, age 21, sits in the large gymnasium with her older sister, niece, mother and 18-month-old daughter, Yuwa. Her house was destroyed in the tsunami. She just managed to escape, first to a nearby hill, but when the churning mass of debris brought in by the tsunami caught fire, she was forced to flee further up the mountain.

“We get one bowl of soup or one piece of bread to share among three people. It’s cold here, and these two, pointing to her daughter and niece, caught a cold but now we have some medicine from the Red Cross.”

At the municipal council, Koso Hirano, has a massive job on his hands. By default, he assumed control of the council when the mayor and seven other councillors lost their lives in the tsunami.

"We always thought we were well prepared. We built six-metre barrages and dykes, but the wave was ten metres high and people barely had 20 minutes to escape,” says Hirano, whose main task now is ensuring that evacuees have sufficient food and water supplies. He is clearly exhausted,

“I feel very depressed about the future of the town, many people have left saying they don’t want to return; it will take us at least a decade to rebuild. I told one of my team to go home and check on his family but he said that they were all dead and his home had gone. He had nothing to go back to and just wanted to carry on working.”