Aid Agencies Rush to Japan

Kanya D’Almeida

HAVANA TIMES, March 15 (IPS) — Day five of Japan’s post-earthquake, post-tsunami life dawned dismally Tuesday, with soaring radiation levels from the Fukushima Daiichi power plants and a relentlessly rising death toll in the four worst-affected prefectures.

When the 9.0 earthquake first hit Japan, its highly advanced disaster-alert systems minimized the impact of what in most other countries would have been a catastrophic event, leaving about 100 people dead.

But when the 10-metre high tsunami engulfed the islands shortly after, the disaster swiftly became too great for even the world’s third most industrialized nation to cope with alone.

Since last Friday, the government of Japan reports that close to 3,200 people in 12 prefectures have died, though less conservative estimates say the number is at least double that, with a projected death toll of 10,000 in the coming days. National media reports claim that over 15,000 people are missing in the affected areas.

In Fukushima alone, 1,200 people are unaccounted for, a number that is likely to rise drastically within the week.
Over 10,000 people are stranded in Iwate and 1,000 more in Miyagi and Fukushima. Minami Sannriku town in Miyagi prefecture and Otsuchi town in Iwate prefectures are currently the worst affected areas with an estimated 20,000 people – nearly half the population – still out of contact as of Tuesday.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) dispatched its Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team to Tokyo Monday, at the behest of the Japanese government, to coordinate foreign aid flows, an onslaught of international humanitarian assistance and local relief efforts.

“The team is helping the Japanese authorities with information management and international offers of assistance,” Martin Nesirky, the spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, told reporters Tuesday,” and it plans to send a reconnaissance mission to the prefectures of Fukushima and Miyagi tomorrow.”

This particular UNDAC mission is playing a more limited role than its predecessors, since Japanese authorities are primed to direct the bulk of search and rescue efforts in their own capacity. UNDAC’s role is rather to provide a few select services and defer to the authority of the Japanese government in major decision-making.

“UNDAC has been providing advice on incoming international relief goods and services, with the view to limiting unsolicited contributions,” Stephanie Bunker, spokesperson and public information officer of OCHA in New York, told IPS.

“This is actually a very important task because as we’ve seen in many disasters, countries have been inundated with unsolicited contributions. People mean well, but an overflow of uncoordinated aid is not necessarily a good thing,” she added.

The seven-member disaster response team includes specialists from France, Britain, Sweden, India, the Republic of Korea and Japan. They have set up an Onsite Operations and Coordination Centre and will be disseminating timely information to the international community in the coming days.

According to OCHA’s most recent situation report, nearly 420,000 people have been evacuated from the earthquake- and tsunami-hit areas, of which nearly half are from Miyagi alone and the rest in varying degrees from Fukushima, Iwate, Ibaraki, Tochibi and Aomori.

“At this point we do not have a sound estimate of the total costs incurred by the disaster,” Bunker told IPS. “It is still much too early to come up with a meaningful number.”

However, OCHA’s preliminary research shows that nearly 4,000 buildings in the northeastern region of Tohuku have been totally destroyed, while a further 55,000 have been severely damaged by the earthquake, tsunami or fires. The Japanese National Police Authority reports that the damage done to roads and bridges has virtually paralyzed huge swathes of the national transport system.

Nearly 850,000 households formerly powered by Tokyo Electric Power Company and Tohuku Electric Power Company are currently existing without access to water, gas and electricity, a crisis that extends way beyond the four most affected prefectures. Lack of access to food and water is a crisis that is only worsening by the hour.

The Japanese Red Cross Society has begun offering medical and psychosocial care to the scores of survivors and evacuees.

“I have never seen anything as bad as this before. It defies belief,” said Tadateru Konoé, president of the Japanese Red Cross Society and the IFRC following his visit to Iwate prefecture. According to IFRC’s latest press release, 430,000 evacuees are currently being housed in fewer than 2,500 makeshift evacuation centers in schools and other public buildings.

“Red Cross medical teams are reporting many cases of people arriving at hospitals suffering from hypothermia and at risk of pneumonia. Many people are suffering the effects of having swallowed contaminated water during the tsunami,” the press release added.

Despite accepting specialized assistance from certain aid agencies, Japan is displaying extraordinary resilience and efficiency in the face of a debilitating disaster.

Over 100,000 troops along with 95,000 firefighters and 920 police units are working ceaselessly to evacuate at-risk citizens, locate missing persons and deliver relief items as fast as humanly possible.

According to OCHA ground reports, the National Police Agency
(NPA) and Japan Self-Defense Forces have already rescued more than 2,200 people. In addition, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency have rescued nearly 3,000 people, including about 970 affected people stranded in isolated villages.

Furthermore, the NPA added that 121 roads and 28 bridges have already been repaired, paving the way for more effective rescue and relief operations.