A disaster unlike any other

Japan, April 5, 2011

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Over the weekend I visited the tsunami-devastated zone of Japan's northeastern coast, and wanted to share the following observations with you. They're excerpted from an internal email I sent earlier today to Mercy Corps' global team — of which I consider you a integral member.

Mercy Corps and our partner Peace Winds have moved quickly to help the people of Japan in recognition of their incredible need, given a triple blow of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Our response has been made possible thanks to the outpouring of generosity we've received from supporters like you around the country, and also here in the Pacific Northwest. Thank you.

So here's a quick update:

The overall atmosphere in Japan, understandably, is subdued. There are great fears regarding radiation, ongoing power shortages, and continuing shock and sadness at the tsunami's devastation. As we see in many parts of the world after a disaster, a number of people I spoke with, including Peace Winds leaders, noted the opportunity in this crisis. Here, that opportunity may be that it jolts Japanese society into action — particularly calling young people to greater purposes.

Despite being one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, we saw very little damage attributable just to the earthquake: cracked tile roofs, a few broken windows, loose gutters...and that is about it. This is a remarkable testament to Japanese engineering and safety standards. In any other country, the earthquake damage and deaths would be substantially greater, if not catastrophic. Having either experienced directly or visited shortly thereafter earthquakes ranging from those in San Francisco in 1989, (Bam) Iran, Pakistan, and Haiti, I still find stunning the relatively small amount of damage stemming from this 9.0 quake.

The tsunami destruction, on the other hand, is catastrophic — and bordering on biblical in its awesome devastation. As one Peace Winds team member said to me, "I never knew what speechless really meant...now I do." Ranging from one to five kilometers inland, it seems as if the sea roared up, rushed onshore and devoured everything in its wake and then spit out all the pieces of wreckage and debris as it withdrew. You have all seen the news reports and images, they don't do justice to the reality — yet, as we saw in Aceh, I have no doubt that the lasting image will not be of destruction but of places amazingly restored.

The human toll continues to unfold. There are more than 12,000 dead and 15,000 still missing. More than one million people have been impacted; there are about 200,000 living in shelters; and approximately 440,000 households without electricity and clean water, though things are improving each day. Beyond these tragic statistics, what struck me most was the quiet dignity and grace of those impacted...along with the amazing organization of the humanitarian effort.

The evacuation centers, which in many cases are schools, are impeccably organized, both by the evacuees themselves and by local officials and the Japan Self-Defense Forces, with solid support from Japanese civil society as represented by organizations like our partner, Peace Winds. One of the most striking symbols of grace and organization are the way shoes are neatly arranged by family outside of classrooms housing 10-15 families. Inside the classrooms each family's space is immaculately neat (clothes folded in plastic bags, food carefully parsed and preserved in bins), and then divided by simple cardboard barriers for some semblance of privacy.

I shared some additional thoughts with The Oregonian, which you can read here.

Going forward, Japan's biggest challenges revolve around more permanent housing (though more prefabs are going up each day), jump-starting local economies, and then undertaking massive rebuilding. An ongoing challenge is addressing the psychosocial needs and trauma of children and severely impacted families.

Taking all this into account, our developing strategy with Peace Winds is right on target:

  1. Fill immediate humanitarian gaps through distributions of food, water, clothing and other basics.
  2. Launch Comfort for Kids and other emotional support programs.
  3. Provide household necessities to families as they are relocated by the government to more permanent housing — preferably via cash/digital vouchers that support local markets.
  4. Help restart small businesses and restore jobs through cash grants and credit guarantees.

Peace Winds is a terrific partner. They have a dedicated, highly motivated and professional team. We will be working hand in hand with Peace Winds in full partnership, continuing to develop a comprehensive response that helps affected families recover and rebuild their lives.

Finally, the Japanese have much to teach us — and the world — in terms of their disaster preparedness and overall organization, as well as their dignity, grace, and resilience. It's been inspiring. Our team continues to work tirelessly to support and quicken their recovery.

For the latest overview of Mercy Corps Japan response, see the factsheet.