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Japan’s disaster survivors cope with cold, illness, fuel shortages and personal loss

Shaken by its worst disaster in recent memory, Japan is battling to restore the hope for a shocked and vulnerable population, including hundreds of thousands crowded into evacuation centers, and slowly get back on its feet despite daunting obstacles.

In many respects, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast is rapidly becoming a disaster associated with the elderly. The three evacuation centers in the shattered town of Otsuchi are filled with the old and ill. Many are too tired or too sick to do little but lie on mattresses on the floor, swathed in blankets.

The weather is taking a heavy toll on the health of the survivors in evacuation centers, many of whom are elderly. Japanese Red Cross Society doctors say there has been an increase in cases of influenza and some diarrheal diseases.

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 centers.

Friday the team was based in the infirmary of Otsuchi High School, where about 700 people filled the floor space of the school’s gymnasium. The infirmary’s only two beds are being used by an elderly woman who is barely conscious and an old man attached to an I/V drip who is badly dehydrated. Most of the patients coming to the clinic are elderly and many have lost their daily medication in the disaster.

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

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

Certainly, life in the evacuation centers isn’t easy for the young either. Ayumi Yamazaki, 21, sits in the large gymnasium with her older sister, niece, mother and one-and-a-half year-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 further up the mountain.

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

At the Otsuchi 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 council members died when the tsunami came in.

“We always thought we were well prepared,” he said. “We built six meter (20 feet) barrages and dykes but the wave was ten meters (33 feet) high and people barely had twenty minutes to escape”, said Hirano whose main task now is ensuring that evacuees have sufficient food and water supplies.

Red Cross Response

The American Red Cross announced an initial contribution of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society Tuesday to assist in its ongoing efforts to provide medical care and relief assistance to the people of Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Read more

In addition to financial assistance, a disaster management expert from the American Red Cross traveled to Japan last week for a short mission to provide support and advice to the Japanese Red Cross Society, which continues to support the Japanese government’s earthquake and tsunami response.

Reaching Vulnerable Survivors by Bicycle

In face of a fuel shortage which is hampering relief supply deliveries and the mobility of medical teams, the Japanese Red Cross Society has been finding alternative ways to ensure aid reaches the most vulnerable survivors.

“If there’s no petrol, I can’t get around, but I know there are old people on their own, so I am visiting them by bicycle to make sure they are OK,” said Shinya Hirakuri, a disaster management team leader.

Following days of near constant response, a number of Japanese Red Cross teams are rotating out for rest periods. On their return to Tokyo from the most affected areas in the northeast through unseasonal snow falls, they have reported that compared to the immediate aftermath of the disaster, traffic and relief activity is steadily becoming more intensive.

Although traffic is improving, it will likely remain a challenge for some time yet. As an example, to get to devastated communities in Miyagi prefecture, north of Fukushima where the damaged nuclear plant lies, requires a long detour via Niigata, further west, adding dramatically to travel times. This coupled with fuel shortages causes delays the arrival of supplies and relief workers and keeps survivors isolated.

Working hard to keep the world’s focus on the humanitarian situation despite the unfolding nuclear crisis, the Japanese Red Cross Society is forming additional plans for continuing its support to affected populations in case the exclusion zone around the trouble reactors widens.

A seven-person international advisory team, which includes an American Red Cross representative, will work throughout the weekend and beyond with the Japanese Red Cross Society to move relief and recovery operations forward as well as defining ways for the global Red Cross Red Crescent network to provide support.