National | Regional Voices: Tohoku

India relief team chief brings home lessons from 3/11 Tohoku tsunami

Kahoku Shimpo

The former head of an Indian government rescue team dispatched for relief operations in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 is sharing the lessons learned from the disaster-stricken town in his home country.

Alok Awasthi, the ex-commandant of India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), has compiled 10 tips on how to respond in a similar crisis for India, which is prone to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and drought. He has been sharing lessons learned from the disaster victims in the Tohoku region through lectures and other activities aimed at raising awareness of disaster response across India.

“Wow, it’s miraculous that Onagawa, then so severely destroyed, has transformed into such an amazing town!” Awasthi, 50, said with admiration while looking at a photograph of a commercial area in front of the JR Onagawa Station. It was a scene that was hard to imagine at the time of the disaster, with the rescue team witnessing a mountain of rubble piled up amid the town’s severe damage from the massive quake and roughly 20-meter-high tsunami.

The NDRF arrived in Japan on March 28, 2011, as the first foreign relief team after the disaster. For about a week, the 46-member team including rescue workers and medical staff took part in the search for missing people and helped clear the rubble.

Whenever they discovered a new body, the team offered two minutes of silent prayer, in accordance with an Indian custom.

“Despite the imminent crisis the people in Onagawa were in, they never lost their composure and took great care for us,” Awasthi recalled with gratitude for the hospitality the Indian team received while in Japan.

Onagawa, a town of about 10,000 residents before the disaster, lost more than 800 lives. Awasthi said he was deeply impressed with the way the people, even in times of despair, shared relief supplies with other disaster victims at local evacuation centers.

After returning to India, Awasthi wrote down the 10 most important lessons he learned from the rescue efforts. Those observations include: “Disaster victims take only basic essentials from relief goods so that everyone gets their share” and “People line up for water and food rations.”

He has compiled a summary of Japan’s rules and values, and gives talks in India to pass along the lessons. He said he has received an invitation from the Japanese Embassy to India to provide a lecture as well.

“I learned a lot in Onagawa, and I’m delighted if our small relief efforts have contributed even just a bit to the town’s recovery,” he said.

To commemorate the 2011 disaster victims in the Tohoku region, he wears a lapel pin on his uniform with Japanese and Indian flags.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published Jan. 5.

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