Report from the disaster zone

Japan, March 21, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon, courtesy - AlertNet.  </span>
    A man looks around devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan, March 15, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon, courtesy - AlertNet.

About half the city completely ruined. A line visible from where the water surged, stopped and then withdrew. On one side of the line, everything destroyed. On the other side, everything normal.

This is the scene that Mercy Corps' Global Emergency Operations director Randy Martin described today, on his return from visiting the city of Kesennuma, which was badly hit by the March 11 tsunami. He'd visited the area over the weekend with Peace Winds CEO Ken Onishi. Peace Winds and Mercy Corps are working in partnership to respond to the urgent emergency needs of survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.

Survivors' living conditions are still very difficult in this area. The weather is still very cold, Randy said — like Portland a couple of months ago. Rainy, snowy, chilly. Electricity is very limited at the moment due to destroyed transmission lines and the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. There are no electric trains running and shops are all closed. Fuel is also in short supply and there are long lines of cars waiting even overnight for fuel.

Randy visited a junior high school where the Peace Winds team has been distributing supplies such as food, blankets and clothing. He said that the school still has no central heat or water, so kerosene space heaters are supplying the heat and there's portable toilets outside. Evacuees are among the most subdued that he's ever seen after a disaster — he guessed that many are still in incredible shock from all that has happened over the last week.

Randy has been a first responder in many disasters over the last decade. And still after witnessing the damage in northern Japan, he remarked: "Every emergency is so remarkably different than all others." Responding in Japan is "a thoroughly unique context and challenge."

Though Japan has substantial economic and governmental capacity to respond to disaster, he emphasized that much of that ability has been undermined at the community level, where it's needed most.

"The normal responders to emergencies have themselves been devastated," he said. "Fire and police departments washed away, hospitals are overwhelmed with patients and also grappling with electric and water failures, and schools are taken over by the displaced."

Randy also notes, "Many of the responders themselves have lost their lives or are grieving the lost of loved ones. So the very institutions that are designed to respond are dramatically challenged to do so."

Randy returned to Tokyo with immediate plans for expanding our emergency response beyond relief distributions. These plans include starting Mercy Corps' Comfort for Kids program to help kids recover emotionally from the disaster and looking at ways to begin early economic recovery activities in tsunami-affected zones and improving families' access to clean water and sanitation.