HAVANA TIMES, March 12 (IPS) — Japan’s reputation as a world leader in disaster management is facing a crucial test as the country scrambles to deal with the massive destruction caused by a strong earthquake on Friday that has left mounting deaths in the densely populated northeast.
Responding quickly and with accurate information is key to stemming the ballooning of the crisis that can grow with rumors and panic, experts here say.
Professor Tokiyoshi Yamada, speaking on Japan’s national broadcasting channel said rescue and evacuation strategies have now begun following the disaster management programme that is based on carefully analyzed data that identifies the needs and damage in the affected areas.
“Each village and locality have their own distinct issues, neighbors, destruction and evacuation needs. The first step is to assess the damage based on as much information as we can and then just surge ahead,” he explained.
For now, experts are searching for survivors, a task that is an enormous feat as many of the affected people in rural areas are aged and live alone. Because the tsunami has isolated whole villages by washing away roads, access is also proving a heavy challenge.
Television showed a hospital on the coast of Iwate prefecture, one of worst affected in the northeast, completely cut off from the rest of the vicinity.
Rescue helicopters had still not reached the building which had SOS in huge white lettering on its roof top.
Long lines of people waited for food and water. A woman from Iwate said she had been standing for three hours for food and water but was satisfied her needs are being met.
A woman in her sixties described her escape as a “miracle”. “When the tsunami warning came I just grabbed a back-pack and ran to a tall building and walked up several flights of stairs. I was so frightened but glad I am safe,” she said.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated. Whole villages have been swept away by a continuous tsunami that has been as high as 10 meters at places. Cars, fishing boats and even whole villages have been washed away.
In addition, on Saturday afternoon NHK, Japan’s national television, reported grave news of a possible radioactive leak from a nuclear accident at one of Fukushima’s nuclear power reactors. It quoted experts calling for calm and saying there is no threat to the public.
The earthquake measured 8.8 on the Japanese seismic scale and is the worst in a century. Japan is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries for earthquakes. Experts say this one was caused by the movement of 500 kilometers of tectonic plates buried deep in the ocean.
More than 6,000 people died in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The death toll from this earthquake is expected to be in the thousands too.
Led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet members, all of whom have donned working blue uniforms that symbolize the grave work ahead, more than 50,000 Self Defense Force members have joined hundreds of local government officials, emergency experts, and medical and civic workers who have fanned out in vehicles, helicopters or simply on foot to help people still trapped in rubble.
“The earthquake can be described this time as a tsunami disaster,” Kan told the press Saturday morning after he returned from a helicopter survey to estimate the damage. Kan was referring to the tsunami waves hitting the coastal areas facing the Pacific Ocean.
The western coastal region from Japan’s northern Hokkaido Island to the southern-most Okinawa continues to face a tsunami warning.
The quake also caused destruction in Tokyo, that experienced shocks of 5 magnitude and is home to 13 million people – a tenth of the national population. Five deaths have been reported in the city so far, mostly as a result of falling furniture inside houses.
Still, the strongest picture emerging from the chaos on the ground is the stoic patience of the Japanese public.
Japanese television stations provide round the clock news and information, blankets and food are pouring in from other areas, while hotels are permitting stranded people to stay in safety.
Take Masaru Kendo, a newspaper man, who delivered his lot of newspapers in central Tokyo just 15 minutes after the tremor. He said to panicked staff at an office he visited: “I’m sorry I’m late.” He then ran up another flight of stairs to his next destination.