It's been almost two weeks since people along coastal northeastern Japan saw the signs of coming tsunami waves and saved their lives by racing to safety. The water hit their cities and towns, taking away loved ones, their homes, their jobs. Leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs — and overwhelming uncertainty, sorrow, and fright.
Today, many of them are living in evacuation centers made out of schools, community centers and even shopping malls. Snow and freezing temperatures have struck the area again.
In Kesenumma city, the Peace Winds team is regularly delivering food and other relief materials to a school that shelters 700 evacuees. The central heat still doesn't work, so the team has made special efforts to get enough space heaters and warm clothing to the evacuees, which has so far met their needs. Now the pressing task is to get them additional nutritious food to supplement their meager meals, and providing sanitary items like diapers and underwear. Evacuees are making the best of it, but I can only imagine how unpleasant it must be to have little change of clothing, and to sleep and stay in one room with lots of other people day in and day out.
Last night on my call with Peace Winds' Tomoko Yamashita in Japan, she shared more insight about the evacuees' situation. Coping with stress and anxiety is becoming more of a need. "After 10 days, evacuees are starting to become really tired but, [don't feel they can rest], they also have to think about how they will deal with the fact that they have lost their families, jobs and houses."
She says that people who still have missing family members are leaving the evacuation centers each day to try and find their loved ones, or locate where their houses might be, even to try to just find a few photographs or mementos, anything to keep from their past lives. Many times though, she said, even whole houses are nowhere to be found, you have no idea where they might be in all the piles of debris. Outside the center, the scene is also very difficult. There are massive amounts of debris, and recovery teams are still identifying the dead.
In many centers, there are children whose family members are still missing. Tomoko said she couldn't estimate how many at the Kesennuma school, but says that the community is taking care of the children for now. "The children have a lot of trauma and stress," she says. "Kids have started crying at night, not just in the day. And we are still having lots of aftershocks, so every time we feel the shaking, we feel stressed out and can't relax."
To help both children and adults begin emotional recovery, Mercy Corps and Peace Winds will launch the Comfort for Kids program in the next week with a pilot program at the Kesennuma school sheltering 700 people. Comfort for Kids trains local adults that work with kids — such as teachers, doctors or parents — how to help children heal after a disaster. For example, teaching them how to talk to children about the disaster they witnessed, and address behaviors that are the result of anxiety or uncertainty, as well as answer difficult questions such as those about death and grieving.
Survivors are living in very difficult situations — staying healthy now is not just about food and water, but helping people to have strength emotionally, so they can grieve and then start to remake their lives.