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Friday, March 18, 2011
Getting relief to survivors
People who have taken shelter at evacuation facilities in northeastern Japan since the March 11 quake and tsunami are finding themselves living under harsh conditions. The central and local governments must make strenuous efforts to deliver aid and personnel to those places as soon as possible. The death of evacuees because of a delay in help must be avoided at any cost.
The number of people who died or are unnacounted for due to the magnitude-9 quake and subsequent tsunami topped 12,000 in 12 prefectures, most of them in the Tohoku region of Honshu, according to the National Police Agency. This is the first time since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that the number of quake, tsunami and fire victims has surpassed the 10,000 mark. In the 1923 disaster, more than 105,000 people died or went missing.
More than 80,000 members of the Self-Defense Forces, the police and firefighting brigades are engaged in rescue and relief operations. Some 26,500 people have thus far been saved.
The final death toll is certain to rise. And tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for. In addition, the discovery of a large number of bodies has been reported in various locations along the northeast coast. As the number of fatalities rises, local governments are having difficulty securing places to store bodies. The Miyagi prefectural government says that coffins are in short supply and that a power shortage is making it impossible to produce the dry ice that is needed to store bodies.
The physical damage caused by the quake and tsunami is beyond imagination. Lifelines have been ripped apart in many areas. Damaged roads are hampering the search and rescue operations being conducted by the SDF, the police and firefighters. Road conditions are also making it difficult to send aid to evacuation facilities.
At one point, some 550,000 people were housed at evacuation centers. As power supply is restored, some people have started returning home. Some 380,000 people remain in some 2,200 evacuation facilities, such as school buildings and community centers, in eight prefectures.
The number of evacuees from the March 11 quake and tsunami is larger than the number from the 1995 Kobe quake, which killed 6,434 people. At the peak following the Kobe quake, 316,700 people were housed at some 1,150 evacuation centers in Hyogo Prefecture.
Evacuees from the March 11 disaster lack adequate food, water, medicines, blankets, heating oil, etc. Cold weather is also adding to their misery. A peculiar difference from the 1995 quake is that volunteers are having difficulty in reaching evacuation facilities due to the disruption of transportation and the serious accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s No. 1 Fukushima nuclear power plant. As a result, there are not enough trained personnel to manage the evacuation facilities.
After the Kobe quake, volunteers were able to reach some 20 percent of the evacuation facilities in Hyogo Prefecture within 72 hours. They helped prepare and distribute rice, as well as classify and distribute goods provided by various aid organizations and citizens to quake survivors. They also accompanied medical workers to evacuation sites or quake-damaged areas to help survivors, especially the elderly.
But not everything went smoothly in Hyogo Prefecture. The central and local governments must learn from the 1995 experience. Local government workers were so busy procuring coffins and transporting bodies that they failed to address the needs of elderly evacuees. Several days after the quake, some elderly survivors developed pneumonia, stomach ulcers and other ailments due to stress and died. It is estimated that 900 to 1,000 people perished of post-quake fatigue and stress caused by the traumatic disruption of their daily lives.
Evacuees from the March 11 disaster are undergoing similar hardships. At Ishinomaki Senshu University in Miyagi Prefecture, where some 700 evacuees are staying, there are insufficient blankets, forcing some people to sleep on cardboard while using newspapers as covering. Meals consist of bananas, while juice is only provided in the morning and evening. There is no hot food or drink. In a gymnasium in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward, where some 200 evacuees are housed, only one oil heater is available and a shortage of heating oil means that it is turned off at night to save fuel.
The central and local governments and the private sector should cooperate so that goods, medical workers and skilled volunteers can reach evacuation facilities safely and quickly. Evacuation centers are likely to operate for a long time to come. Every effort must be made to save evacuees' lives with sufficient care and medical treatment.
Local governments should consider housing severely weakened people, especially the elderly, in welfare facilities. Citizens in areas not affected by the quake and tsunami should not hoard food, gasoline and heating oil.