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A report on aid operations in the Sendai area; bottom line: System is overwhelmed, we need to go deeper into the zone

Those interested in what is happening in the areas in Japan most devastated by tsunami will find this letter to be quite interesting, if not troubling. My summary:
Those of us in Misawa need to be doing whatever we can to get deeper into the areas that the Japanese government has yet been able to serve. Although labor will be important in these areas, the immediate needs are urgent life-sustaining necessities and trauma relief. Unfortunately, official channels seem completely overwhelmed. I am looking for connections that will allow us to get get into these areas with a team of international trauma specialists to not only meet immediate needs but to also setup systems and training for long-term support.

The following letter came to me yesterday from from Michael Shackleton, Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Osaka Gakuin University:

I've just got back after a few days helping out in Ishinomaki, an area near Sendai devastated by the Tsunami. Just an update on the 'aid' situation: distribution centres seem soon to have adequate supplies of basic necessities (food, clothing, toiletries, shovels etc., etc.) - not enough yet but trucks are coming in quite easily now the roads & more ports are open. The problem is distribution, which is where volunteers come in, except there are hardly any.... Currently, the ONLY volunteer groups visibly out in the neighborhoods are the Japan Red Cross (soup kitchens etc.) and foreign volunteers (living in Japan or aid professionals) linked to Christian churches. In other words, the food etc. is available in abundance, but is NOT being delivered efficiently. Just a few vans are trying to cover maybe 200 miles of coastline hit by the tsunami... The government is clearly holding back any other volunteer groups, tho exactly why and until when is a mystery. All the help seems clustered in the Sendai area. There is an enormous lack of info about what is happening further North. I asked if help was coming from Hokkaido, but nobody knew. Earthquake damage was almost insignificant compared to the devastation by the tsunami. (Some of the guys I worked with had flown in from Haiti, and were struck by the way earthquake damage is local - this building but not that building etc. - whereas the tsunami simply destroyed whole areas...)

Thursday and Friday I helped distribute stuff in Ishinomaki. The church groups got in there early last week, and it seems no food etc. aid had arrived before then. There were government checks soon after the disaster, but nothing since. The bodies in the street and in the vehicles began to be moved after a week. In one area, we arrived with a 4 ton truck and two vans, fully loaded, and everything went inside an hour. Just a mad rush - those who tried to queue got trampled. Most of the folks had not had any such help until then, i.e. week 3. A few minutes drive further away, and there have been deliveries almost every day for the last week, and some folks now arrive to stock up by car....If anybody can't come to where food is being distributed, I hope their neighbours or relatives/friends bring them something. 'Shock' was still evident but much more so in the first area, so I guess having a good meal and being told 'Yes, we'll be back soon', makes a big difference. Some folks didn't even bother to put food into bags - they began eating on the spot. I saw plenty of Jieitai, but none talking with locals. They are mainly looking for dead bodies, and have clear directives about what they can and can't do.

It seems government expects people in need to come to the shelters, and so if they stay home, they have no need. In Ishinomaki, many homes remain semi-cleared of mud, and smelling of rotten fish, but folks are trying to live there. No evidence of local neighborhood organizations picking up food etc. and distributing it, or bridging the gap with govt. agencies. Many officials living locally (and local pastors) seem to be in shock, even if they survived, and local leadership is not evident, except maybe via any local ramen booths that have opened up again. Otherwise, all shops/restaurants are closed. Schools are generally open - some functioning as evacuation centres but also providing a place for their students to be. Term will probably start more or less on time.

Things will probably start changing very fast as more roads are cleared and electricity is restored. A week from now, and most emergency needs can probably be met in areas easily reach-able from Sendai. Reconstruction, new jobs & housing will naturally take much longer. The biggest question mark I have is about neighborhood support groups - in the short & long term. I gather this is why the church groups were allowed in (with a bit of pressure from the Americans too), i.e. to link up with the local Japanese churches. In fact, it seems most of the local churches, and their pastors, are in disarray. Where there is no pastoral intro, the aid guys just go into neighborhoods and ask around where the need for help is greatest. That usually produces people who are willing to act as guides. There is plainly a lot of local info circulating locally, but very limited local action. Folks are waiting for help, but not organizing it/going to get it by themselves. With no vehicles or transport, and no access to TV, radio or internet, very limited keitai coverage (if you can charge up your phone), no public loudspeakers for regular public announcements, etc. etc., it's not so surprising that most folks stay close to 'home & neighbours', if they possibly can. There are still regular after-shocks - usually at least one level 5 (sometimes 6) each day. Night-time remains scary, especially without electricity.

Why only foreign Christian aid groups? 'Samaritan Purse' is frequently the first charity to get into disaster areas. They had a jumbo filled with stuff and airborne even before they had clearance to arrive at a Japanese airport. They solved that problem by flying into the American base, and the American military then helped facilitate access to the disaster zone, and they were given warehouse space for assembling aid items. They do their job very well indeed. Other Christian NGO's followed and networked together. They are not excluding non-Christian foreign NGO's, but said this was current Japanese government decision - i.e. they were allowed in so they could work with the local pastors, albeit in practice that often meant working blind....Yes, some - but only a few - tried to proselytize and distribute bibles rather than food. Most clearly realized it was not the moment for theology. I guess most of you reading this are not regular church-goers, but please appreciate that these guys are really doing great work, very professionally. It may seem odd that they seem to have a monopoly in the NGO/aid distribution in & around Sendai, but that's how things have turned out. No talk about God punishing Japan, etc. etc. Just recognition of a big need that needs to be met, and wishing there were more boots on the ground. There are many folk in need of counseling & spiritual support, but currently those needs can only be met from within the communities or families themselves. (Oh Yes, and eg. a sign scrawled on a closed Lawson store: Sendai Gambare!)

Usual mis-match of some food-aid. Hope they like the chicken-flavor rice & soya flour mix (and can find a way to cook it when water and cooking apparatus are in short supply). Preference for rice over bread seems a good sign that in fact more people can at last cook.

Much suspicion about food without explanations in Japanese. Biggest non-food need is now underpants - especially for ladies. Normal washing/baths etc. are still not possible - not enough water and/or heating. Personal hygiene is an issue.
No stray cats/dogs etc. Nobody could say why. One dog was rescued - still chained up, very thin & dehydrated, and still very traumatized and nervous a week later.
Keitai of choice: i-phone, by far. The aid guys were constantly exchanging PIN (place identification) data. Without them, very little could have been done.
Biggest surprise: a) You've seen the videos & photos. You can see how the tsunami came through, at speed and (at least) at second floor level. Some folks are still trying to live in what's left b) Almost total absence of Japanese volunteers/NPO's (Red Cross = only exception).

Most fun: jumping lights when in convoy/playing Keystone Cops where the traffic lights don't work. All the traffic is pretty co-operative.

We travelled up with a special disaster relief permit that meant we didn't pay tolls on any vehicles in our convoy. All the toll folks were very helpful, even if we had to explain what they had to do. However, no more such permits are being issued. In Tohoku, similar permits - including easy access to fuel - are also no longer being issued (from 24 March). Going by the enormous need for folks to help with distribution (i.e. vehicles and boots on the ground) this decision seems a tad premature. The big question then is where those vehicles and folks are going to come from for the next few weeks, i.e. whilst the needs remain dire. Most of the Japan-based foreign (Christian) volunteers were coming from Kansai, with a few from Tokyo. The jietai were driving up from Hiroshima. The lack of Japanese volunteers is therefore very conspicuous, and since so many volunteer groups exist (often registered with local government offices) it's a bit odd not to see them. They have been reined in. I assume the national & local government officials have had enough problems organizing themselves (many may be dead/injured/in shock etc.) and don't feel up to organizing masses of volunteers, who would also need feeding/places to stay etc., in what is still a danger zone...

How to help: Entry into the disaster area is no longer restricted, but where are the volunteers? Try to push for volunteer groups to be allowed in - via your embassy, the press, etc. Or at least push to find out why volunteers aren't being allowed in. There is a really enormous need. If you fancy going up and helping out, with one of the Christian agencies, they will certainly feel more comfortable if you are Christian, or at least spiritually inclined and willing to share in prayer. Also, obviously, the emphasis has to be on helping the locals, not fieldwork. But there IS a real need for good fieldwork, to document & understand what is happening.

Just to emphasize: I was only in the Sendai/Ishinomaki areas, but spoke with people who are familiar with situation throughout Miyage.


Michael Shackleton

Associate Professor of Social Anthropology
Osaka Gakuin University