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Japan, International Community Race to Aid Earthquake, Tsunami Victims

March 14, 2011 at 6:31 PM EST
Japan and the international community are scrambling to get water, food and shelter to thousands of earthquake and tsunami victims in northeastern Japan. Ray Suarez talks to World Vision's Casey Calamusa in Tokyo and the United Nation's Catherine Bragg, assistant secretary general for the coordination of humanitarian affairs.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to the efforts to alleviate the suffering and provide aid to the tsunami victims.

First, from Japan, I talked by Skype with Casey Calamusa in Tokyo. He’s an official with the humanitarian aid group World Vision.

RAY SUAREZ: Casey, Welcome.

What do people need most right now? And can you get it to them?

CASEY CALAMUSA, World Vision: Well, that’s a good question.

The — our assessment teams have in Sendai the last day. And they basically found out that what’s — what’s to be expected. The most needed items right now are food, water, temporary shelter and clothing.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of physical footprint are we talking about for the places in the most dire need right now? It’s — it’s been hard to get an idea of the size of the affected area that we’re talking about.

CASEY CALAMUSA: One of the things that — that perhaps isn’t made clear is how difficult it is to even reach this — these populations that have been stranded and cut off now.

The roads have been washed out. There have been cars turned over and washed on to the highways. Trees have been uprooted and blown over. So, it’s — it’s almost impossible in a lot of cases to get anywhere by car. You need to be airlifted in.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s still a pretty cold time of the year in northern Japan. Have people been finding places to congregate, to get in out of the elements in the area where the destruction was the worst?

CASEY CALAMUSA: There have been community shelters opening up at churches and schools and community centers. And so there have been mass evacuations to those areas where they have been staying.

And that’s one of the things that World Vision is working on as well is, in this initial distribution, we have brought in jackets for babies, simply realizing how vulnerable they are to the cold.

RAY SUAREZ: When people congregate, is it easier to get them food and water?

CASEY CALAMUSA: Certainly, it does. When you have a population that is spread out, then it’s going to make it much harder to target them and reach them in mass numbers.

So, in a sense, that is — that does help for the aid distributions, that they are all in one place or gathered together. But, right now, the challenge is simply getting to them, and then also what we’re going to do medium- to long-term.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot, Casey. Good to talk to you.

CASEY CALAMUSA: Thanks for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: Now to United Nations efforts to bring international relief to Japan.

Catherine Bragg is the assistant secretary-general for the coordination of humanitarian affairs.

Ms. Bragg, has Japan made specific requests for aid? What have they been asking for?

CATHERINE BRAGG, United Nations: Japan is actually a very well-prepared and well-resourced country when it comes to disaster response.

So, they have the response effort very much in hand and have been doing heroic work in that respect. But there are certain areas where the United Nations has a particular role to play.

In the early days after a disaster like this, search-and-rescue is the most important part. And part of what we can do and what the Japanese government has requested of the United Nations is to help coordinate the international search-and-rescue teams that are coming into the country.

At the moment, the government of Japan has accepted search-and-rescue teams from 15 countries. And there are at least another 17 countries on standby status at the moment, and at least another 40 others who have also offered to send search-and-rescue teams.

So, the coordination of all of this is something that the United Nations can do for — for the government and for the people of Japan. The United Nations also helps to put out the humanitarian information for the use of and — and for the information of anyone who is interested from a humanitarian point of view.

So, we have been putting out a situation report from Saturday morning, which is the second day after the earthquake. And we have been doing a daily situation report, so that, for any party so interested in the situation from a humanitarian point of view, such as where the gaps are in terms of fulfilling the needs of the survivors, what — where are the — what are the extent of the evacuation, that can be found in the information products that we — that we put out.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in the program, it’s been reported on several occasions how difficult it is to get around the country. With those international search-and-rescue teams, can you get your assets into Japan and into the affected areas?

CATHERINE BRAGG: Yes, they are.

And part of what international search-and-rescue teams have to do is that they have to be self-sufficient. So, they will be bringing in all of their own equipments, including the search-and-rescue dogs as well. There are a number of dogs that are with the teams.

And they will be getting — they have been getting into the area and have been assisting with the search-and-rescue. The airport at Sendai at the moment is gradually opening.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it made more complicated, your work, by the problems with the radiation? There have been several releases. People are being evacuated from affected areas.

Do you not only have to worry about that for the people you’re going to help but for the rescue workers themselves?

CATHERINE BRAGG: Well, of course we are concerned, just as everybody.

We have to remember this is actually a triple level of disasters. We have both the effect of the earthquake. We have the effect of the aftermath of the tsunami and now with the nuclear threat as well.

So, for — so, this is not like any other situations, comparable situations that we can think of. This is not like Haiti last year, not even like the tsunami in 2004. So, it is a bit of a different situation that we have to deal with.

But at the moment, our understanding is that the level of radiation is not at the — to the level that is of concern yet that we would be withdrawing aid workers from the area. We, of course, are monitoring the reports from both the government and the International Atomic Energy Agency as to what is the level of risks.

And at this point, our understanding is that they’re — it has not reached that level where we would be withdrawing humanitarian workers from the area.

RAY SUAREZ: In many other disasters, if you locate affected people, stabilize them, help them out, your work is done. But here, with the threat of very large aftershocks and maybe subsequent tsunamis, do you also have to move them to someplace where they’re no longer vulnerable?

CATHERINE BRAGG: Most of those evacuated and the survivors are in evacuation centers, in about — over 2,000 evacuation centers.

As I mentioned before, Japan is a very, very well-prepared country for this. This is the sort of disaster scenarios that they have been rehearsing for years. So it is true that the — both the rescue and the relief efforts are constantly being hampered by aftershocks and also tsunami warnings and the like. It is part of the context of how aid can reach the people.

RAY SUAREZ: U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Catherine Bragg, thanks for joining us.

CATHERINE BRAGG: You’re most welcome. My pleasure.