From Haiti to Japan

Japan, March 11, 2011

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This morning, as I was getting ready for work — before I'd switched on NPR — I was thinking about how I wanted to tell my aunt that I'd like to go with her to Japan this year. She has been wanting to go for a visit for some time now, before she's not able to travel any more, but hasn't had someone to go with. I'm fourth-generation Japanese American, so our family only has distant ties to our Japanese relatives, and it would be an important trip for both me and my aunt to keep those connections.

And then, I turned on the radio to hear that an 8.9-magnitude quake had hit off the shore of Japan. A tragic turn to the thoughts of Japan I'd had just minutes before, replaced now by worry for all of those there who found themselves in panic, their lives upended.

Now at my desk at Mercy Corps' headquarters, all around me there's buzz — phones ringing, impromptu meetings, discussions — as my colleagues determine what our Japan response will be. We just decided that we will support the emergency response of a local partner on the ground, Peace Winds Japan. Now our fundraisers are hard at work to raise money for these efforts.

My father has written to say that our relatives all live far enough away from Tokyo to be out of harm's way with the tsunami, though they likely felt the earthquake and aftershocks.

In my work with Mercy Corps, I've become too familiar with disaster. My job over the last year has focused on reporting on our Haiti earthquake response. I've spent a lot of time in Haiti, seeing firsthand the tremendous struggles that people continue to face there in the aftermath of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated their capital. It's been heartbreaking to see how Haitians' emergency needs extend beyond the earthquake, and to gain a greater understanding of how pervasive those needs were even before the event.

Haiti’s earthquake was several degrees of magnitude weaker than Japan’s quake but killed more than 230,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. There are a lot of reasons for that.

  • Intense poverty makes people much less prepared and able to cope.
  • Government capacity to respond to emergency needs in Haiti was almost nonexistent. As one Haitian colleague said to me once, "If you get into trouble here, it's not like you can call 9-1-1."
  • Haiti has building codes, but most often they weren't followed or enforced. In the slums of Port-au-Prince, where cement houses were built one atop of the other, they just slid down the mountainside during the earthquake. Today, alarmingly, many buildings are being rebuilt again without following code.
  • Disaster risk reduction practices hadn't been used adequately to prepare communities. I've heard from dozens of Haitians that they never even knew what an earthquake was, much less what to do to protect themselves in one.

It's scary to think how much Japan's death toll may yet rise over the next 24 hours, but Japan was much, much better prepared for a disaster than Haiti was, and I am so thankful for that. Norimitsu Onishi of The New York Times even wrote this morning that "no country may be better prepared to withstand earthquakes than Japan." Already, thousands of lives have been saved by Japan's strict building codes, regular emergency drills and other disaster risk reduction practices that developed countries employ.

The photographs and video continue to be heartbreaking. We're sending thoughts and prayers to all of those still caught in chaos — as well as our help.