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Waking up to Japan's disaster

Japan, March 11, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    REUTERS/Yomiuri Yomiuri, courtesy Trust.org -- AlertNet  </span>
    Houses swept out to sea burn following a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City in northeastern Japan. The biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began 140 years ago. Photo: REUTERS/Yomiuri Yomiuri, courtesy Trust.org -- AlertNet

I saw the headline as soon as I opened my computer this morning: "Disaster in Japan: 8.9 Earthquake Among Largest in Recorded History." I read about the horrific tsunami that crashed into coastal communities. I couldn't believe the images of the destruction.

Waking up on the U.S. East Coast, I immediately worried about a potential tsunami impact along the West Coast, but then my mind turned to something else: Hurricane Katrina.

In early September 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina's horrific landfall across the U.S. Gulf Coast, I was deployed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and met two unlikely colleagues: Mari and Suzuki from Mercy Corps' partner organization Peace Winds Japan. They'd been sent by their agency in Tokyo to help their American colleagues in our time of greatest need. Suzuki was a logistician and Mari a health worker. Both were invaluable in those first days of emergency response to one of our worst domestic disasters ever.

I remember long drives to dozens of devastated communities with both of them. One visit to an evacuee shelter in the decimated city of Gulfport, Mississippi set in motion plans to distribute cleaning and hygiene supplies to hurricane-affected families. I remember both of them spending portions of their days making copies and doing administrative work at local emergency coordination centers — anything that was needed.

Both Mari and Suzuki went the extra mile — thousands of extra miles — to do whatever they could to help. I still think that their service was remarkable and kind. So, yes, they came to mind right away this morning.

It might seem like Japan — one of the wealthiest countries in the world — might not need disaster assistance like, say, Haiti. But any country that's experienced catastrophe can use a helping hand in a time of loss. That's what we were offered from all across the world when Hurricane Katrina flooded our cities and broke our hearts.

And so today, Mercy Corps has reached out to Peace Winds and we're awaiting word on their needs in the aftermath of today's disaster. I hope the support we can offer will begin to repay the generosity they showed when our country needed help.