A disaster expert from the American Red Cross arrived today in Toyko to serve on a seven-person, international team focused on providing high-level support and advice to the Japanese Red Cross following last week’s earthquake and tsunami. Within days, she will conduct assessments from some of the hardest hit areas in the north.
Since early Friday morning when the earthquake struck off shore, triggering a tsunami that spanned the entire Pacific Basin, the American Red Cross has been in close contact with its colleagues in the region to offer our support. Given widespread damage and enormous humanitarian needs, the Japanese Red Cross indicated that it would accept financial support from the American Red Cross for its role providing first aid, emotional support and relief items to those displaced.
Authorities estimate at least 370,000 people have been evacuated or displaced—many of which have evacuated to the 2,000 shelters operated by the government and supported by the Japanese Red Cross. Local Red Cross volunteers in Japan have handed out more than 46,000 blankets so far, and nearly 28,000 more have been sent to the affected area for further distribution.
The Japanese Red Cross is a highly experienced disaster relief organization with 2 million volunteers nationwide. It has deployed 95 medical teams, made up of more than 700 people, including doctors and nurses.
“The Japanese Red Cross operates 92 hospitals throughout the country,” said Stacy Ragan, manager of the American Red Cross international response operations center. “In the last three days, the hospital has received more than a thousand patients from the surrounding area, and every inch of floor space is occupied with the sick and wounded.”
In the small town of Ishinomaki on Japan’s northeast coast, the Red Cross hospital has been like a magnet, drawing people in from miles around, many of whom simply find comfort in being able to sleep in a warm corridor with strangers. With all other local hospitals flooded or damaged, this hospital is a beacon of hope for thousands of local people whose lives have been shattered by the tsunami that slammed into the Japanese coastline.
Most of the injured are brought by civil defense helicopters and buses, while others manage to limp in or are carried through the doors. The trauma is evident on the pale faces of many who have seen loved ones swept to their death.
“It is the elderly who have been hit the hardest,” said Patrick Fuller, Red Cross spokesperson working from the disaster zone. “The tsunami engulfed half the town and many lie shivering uncontrollably under blankets. They are suffering from hypothermia, having been stranded in their homes without water or electricity.”
At night, the town is plunged into darkness and is bitterly cold. The night sky is penetrated by the searchlights of civil defense helicopters, which continue the round-the-clock search for stranded households.
Dr. Takayaki Takahashi is a surgeon who leads one of the five mobile medical teams that operate out of the hospital. He’s been on call for 48 hours straight. Each day, he heads out with another doctor and three nurses to run clinics at the evacuation centers set up in public buildings where thousands of people have been sheltered.
“Today we went to Miyoto, which is only about 10 kilometers away by road, but the bridge from the mainland had been swept away,” Takahashi said. “We had to get there by helicopter as it is still surrounded by water. We treated 100 people and left three days rations of food and water for 700 people who are sheltering in a school.”
All along this coastline, people continue to emerge from the debris. Some have been marooned in their homes, surrounded by the lakes of seawater left behind as the tsunami retreated. The stories the medical teams return with bring home the enormity of this disaster. In some areas, the tsunami destroyed everything in its path—the teams no longer venture northeast of the town as they know there were no survivors.
Many of the wounded are burn victims whose homes caught fire when the diesel from sinking fishing boats ignited the mass of debris being carried inland by the tidal surge. In one area, local residents are now too afraid to stay in their homes at night because of the frequent aftershocks and the fear of a repeat tsunami. Instead, they sleep in their cars on the second story of a car park. Based on this trauma, the Japanese Red Cross is also offering psychosocial support to the survivors. The Japanese Red Cross has 2,369 nurses trained nationwide to give emotional comfort following major emergencies.
Those who want to help can go to www.redcross.org and donate to Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami. People can also text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by this disaster.