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Red Cross Helps Japanese Town of Rikuzentakata Fight for Survival

Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba lost his wife in Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The disaster also claimed the lives of 67 of his local government employees. Now he is battling to save his town.

All but a handful of buildings in the town center were smashed and swept away on March 11. A feature of the town, a pine forest of 70,000 trees, is gone. Just one tree remains. The town’s sandy beach, a favorite family picnic spot, is gone. This once picturesque fishing village, in Iwate prefecture, is now a wasteland.

Fighting back tears, Mayor Toba said: “When I look at what is left it is difficult to accept it as a reality. Our fight to survive is just starting. The support of the Red Cross is very much appreciated and very much needed.”

The tsunami killed about 2,000 members of the community. Just about every one of the town’s 22,000 survivors was related to or knows someone who was killed.

“So many people lost a family member or a friend,” said Mayor Toba. “It’s very difficult for them to come back and live in the same place. Yet they also have very strong feelings for this town. I feel the answer is that we have to build a stronger city.”

The local hospital and clinics were destroyed. Japanese Red Cross set up a 24-hour clinic at Daiichi Junior High School, which was also one of the town’s main evacuation centers. There were 1,200 people in the evacuation center by March 12, the day after the disaster, including retired school Principal Yukichi Yokota, who was elected by the people to manage the center.

“At first, the people in the evacuation cent were silent,” Yokota said. “No one was speaking. They were in shock. We could not believe what had happened. Then after two or three weeks people started looking for their family members and friends. They would go out all day looking for people and then come back to the evacuation center to rest. Now (two months after the disaster) we can start to see a few smiles. The facial expressions are a little bit softer and more gentle and the voices are a bit more gentle.”

He said the Red Cross presence and support were playing an important role in the recovery. “The goods that we receive, this medical care, this solidarity (and) these connections between people give us encouragement and energy to continue for the future,” Yokota said. “Thank you for your warm assistance. This is a source of energy for us to go on.”

The Red Cross clinic has been treating about 60 patients a day. A Japanese Red Cross psychosocial team is also stationed at the school to serve the people in the evacuation center and surrounding districts.

“People are starting to open up to us and talk to us about their feelings,” said Red Cross clinical psychologist Kazumi Sawada. “It is hard for some because normally some Japanese people don’t like to show a weakness, but once we are able to start a conversation they start telling us about their feelings.”

Local resident Kiku Sasaki, 77, lost her house and everything in it on March 11. She and her three daughters have been at the evacuation center since the disaster struck. She is hoping for the local government lottery to select her name for the next available purpose-built temporary house. “I am very worried about the future,” Sasaki said. “I try not to think too much about the future because I’m just so worried about what will happen. I just try and think about today and get through it.”

About 2,100 temporary homes are to be built in Rikuzentakata. So far 832 have been completed. Another 1,040 are under construction and are due to be completed by the end of July. Dozens of them are being built alongside the school. The Japanese Red Cross is providing people moving into a temporary home with a set of basic appliances; a washing machine, refrigerator, rice cooker, hot water dispenser, microwave and TV.

1,000 Cranes of Hope

While in Japan last month, American Red Cross representative Mark Preslan presented 1,000 paper cranes made by American school children to a class at Daiichi Junior High School as a gesture of hope. An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury. Students in Saratoga Springs, New York folded the colorful cranes for the students in Rikuzentakata and collected $2,500 through an origami fundraiser for other disaster survivors in Japan.

“We are very happy to receive this,” said a student at Daiichi Junior High School about the many international gifts received. “I feel very happy that all over the world children of our age are thinking about Japanese students. This makes us a bit happier.”

The junior high school survived the tsunami because of its location on a hill, but approximately half of the class Preslan visited have lost their homes and are living in the evacuation center in the school’s gymnasium. Outside much of the school grounds are being used to support temporary homes as well.

How the Red Cross Is Helping To date, the American Red Cross has contributed more than $163 million toward the disaster response in Japan, and plans to make additional donations as pledges are fulfilled. We expect that our contributions to the Japanese Red Cross will support more than half of its planned relief and recovery activities, which includes:
  • improving the living conditions for people in evacuation centers and temporary homes being constructed by the government;
  • rebuilding of a temporary hospital in Ishinomaki City, the strengthening of the region’s only remaining critical care facility and the future construction of a permanent nursing school; and
  • restoration of social welfare programs for the elderly and children, including nursing care, transportation and summer camp scholarships.