Relief workers must adjust quickly

Individuals, groups face challenge identifying constantly changing needs of survivors

by Alex Martin

Numerous relief organizations, volunteer groups and concerned individuals have offered support by distributing goods and lending a helping hand in the earthquake- and tsunami-hammered Tohoku region.

While rebuilding from the widespread devastation will continue to require great amounts of aid, time and manpower, those who have been in the hardest-hit areas emphasize the importance of getting to know the local communities to grasp the constantly changing needs of the survivors and to maximize relief efforts.

Miyako Hamasaka of the nongovernmental disaster relief organization JEN said that as evacuees leave their temporary shelters and gradually begin working to restore their damaged homes, equipment to remove the massive piles of mud and rubble left by tsunami will be in dire need.

“As days and weeks go by, victims’ needs also change, and adapting to them is essential in providing adequate support,” said Hamasaka, who currently travels between Sendai and Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

JEN has set up a base camp in hard-hit Ishinomaki, where more than 2,400 people were killed and some 2,770 remain missing. Much of the local infrastructure remains paralyzed, and the group is currently recruiting volunteers to help clear out the rubble that still overwhelms the coastal area.

“JEN also plans on hiring local residents to set up an office in Ishinomaki in a step to promote the financial independence of victims who have lost their jobs,” Hamasaka said, adding that promoting survivor self-reliance is a significant part of their efforts.

Hamasaka said Self-Defense Forces supply depots are stockpiled with various goods collected from around the country, but in many cases the supplies don’t match the constantly changing needs of the survivors, an issue JEN and other organizations still struggle with.

Adel Suliman of the nongovernmental, nonprofit organization Peace Boat is also currently in Ishinomaki as part of a second group of volunteers dispatched to provide relief.

Suliman, of Libyan nationality, said their main activities include cleaning up homes damaged by mud and rubble, setting up soup kitchens, managing the inflow of goods and distributing them to various temporary shelters and households in need.

Around 90 helpers have been dispatched for the weeklong shift, living in tents on the campus of Ishinomaki’s Senshu University, but Suliman said they are always short of manpower.

“There’s just so much to do. In the Ishinomaki area, for example, the level of damage varies considerably depending on the area, with some communities getting scarcely any supplies, while others are relatively better off,” he said.

Daily meetings and exchanges of information with other aid groups and city representatives take place on the Senshu University campus, he said, adding that the best source of information comes from making daily rounds of the communities and talking with people in the disaster areas.

Christian organizations were also quick to respond to the unprecedented disaster, with many groups working together to organize support.

Peter Thomson, an American missionary and a longtime resident of Hyogo Prefecture who cooperates with Christian relief organization Crash Japan, was part of one of the first response teams to head north to provide aid and support to survivors.

Crash Japan has set up six base camps, in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, to house volunteers and dispatch them to areas in need of help.

Pastors of the many churches in the area call to inform them of what each community needs, and Crash Japan volunteers go on “shopping lifts,” scooping up goods from the group’s warehouse set up in Sendai and delivering them to the designated areas by van and truck.

“We try to ask them to be specific. They would say ‘we need baby goods,’ and we’ll say ‘OK, what age group and how many do you need?’ ” Thomson said.

In Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the group’s volunteers got in touch with community leaders to seek information on those who opt not to live in the relatively well-stocked temporary shelters and instead try to remain in their homes, where delivery of food can be rare.

“If a team can find a local community leader, then the leader knows who is in the community. We had great success by connecting to local leaders and asking them ‘where do you want us to go?’ And they will take us to them.”

In addition to connecting with the locals, Thomson said it is important for those interested in volunteering to recognize their own capacity and limits.

“The need is so astounding and overwhelming, so realize that the one act of kindness, like carrying bottles of water for those too old to take them home themselves, those acts of kindness with a smile is huge encouragement,” he said.