Q&A: IFRC on Evacuee Conditions, Nuclear Crisis Concerns

BY Talea Miller  April 6, 2011 at 2:08 PM EDT

Tsunami survivors at an evacuation centre in Yamada, Iwate prefecture. Photo by Owaki Mutsuhiko / Japanese Red Cross Society

The situation in Japan’s evacuation centers is “dire” for the more than 170,000 people still displaced from their homes by the tsunami and the on-going nuclear crisis, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

IFRC’s John Sparrow spoke with the NewsHour from Tokyo just after a trip up the eastern coast to visit tsunami evacuation centers. Read excerpts from the conversation:

NewsHour: You just returned from a trip into the field, what is the latest on the humanitarian response?

John Sparrow, IFRC: I was up in the three worst-affected prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. I would describe the situation as continuing to be dire. We have many evacuees up there continuing to endure the bitterly cold conditions. There are 170,000 plus people still living in shelters…a priority has to be given to improving conditions. After a while, these conditions are detrimental to health, both physical and mental.

Certainly psycho-social care is something that is of the utmost importance. People are suffering. I ran into an old man who lost his home and his children and his grandchildren. He’s a widower and he’s sitting there in an evacuation center not asking for anything, not talking to anybody. I saw a Japanese Red Cross nurse, she asked him if there was anything she could do for him…and when she persisted and asked him if he had any aches and pains he just looked up at her and asked, “What could possibly happen to me now?” There is a sense amongst many people of survivor guilt.

NewsHour: Now that we are weeks into this response, are there new problems that are arising in the evacuation centers?

Sparrow: Generally supplies are good, people are getting three meals a day, nobody is going hungry. Some of the sanitary conditions leave much to be desired, for instance in some of the sports facilities that are being used — so many people crowded into a space that wasn’t meant for them — sanitary conditions are appalling. I was in one yesterday in Iwate prefecture where people defecated in a blocked toilet, onto paper, which they then folded and took and put in a plastic bag. These kinds of conditions are difficult to endure after so long.

What is also concerning us is that many of the evacuation centers are in schools, and schools begin to go back from a spring break this month. We don’t know what this will mean. Some centers will obviously have to close. And the question is will the inhabitants of those move to larger ones? The authorities don’t want this, they are well aware of the dangers…but some authorities are struggling to find options.

Some temporary housing is being built by the government, some 70,000 temporary, pre-fabricated homes are going to go up, which the Red Cross is going to be providing with equipment. Other people are finding their own solutions. If they have money they are renting apartments, others are moving to family. So the numbers are going down but there are still 170,000.

NewsHour: How is the situation at the nuclear plant weighing on the evacuees?

Sparrow: They are not really concerned about radiation. So much has happened to them that the levels of radiation, certainly outside the exclusion zone are normal, inside we can’t be sure of the situation everywhere but they are not alarming for most of the exclusion zone, which was created for safety’s sake. People’s concern is simply to go home, they want to go back to the exclusion area, particularly the farmers. They know they are going to have a tough time. Where the tsunami came in it swept away the top soil, it’s left salt in their fields and now there is clearly, in some areas, radiation which places question marks over any crops they might grow there, but they want to go home and start over. It’s strange, the world is concerned — and rightly so — about the situation but the people themselves, they have other priorities which are closer to them.

NewsHour: Has the situation at the plant posed issues for the Red Cross logistically?

Sparrow: The Red Cross and other agencies are not allowed into the exclusion zone at the moment, this is the territory of the authorities themselves and the Japanese defense forces. It’s not really an issue, within 20 kilometers of the plant there are very few people, they should have been all evacuated. A few people, very few have refused to go. And then you have a second part of the exclusion zone between 20 and 30 km from the plant, and there people have been allowed to stay with the advice that they stay indoors. We are operating just outside the zones, but we are helping people evacuating from it.

NewsHour: Has the Red Cross had to make any special preparations in case the situation worsens?

Sparrow: We have experience of course in other places like Chernobyl and the information gained there from that kind of operation has been passed on even though, fingers crossed, we don’t have that situation. But certainly worst case scenarios have been discussed and people are thoroughly briefed before they work anywhere near the zone.

NewsHour: Is there any special equipment that is being stockpiled?

Sparrow: At the moment the only equipment that we have is that every member of a relief or a medical team or the mobile teams is carrying, like I do, a dosimeter, which registers radiation. I was very close to the zone, not in it and we are getting very normal readings of what you would expect anywhere at the moment. But everyone is wearing these things and there are procedures to check and report back and so we are collecting information on levels, which at the moment are perfectly okay. And nobody works anywhere near the zone unless they do so voluntarily.

NewsHour: What should NewsHour readers know about the situation going forward?

Sparrow: It’s clear now that this is going to be a long, long operation, we are still in the emergency phase. If you consider that the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 led, for the Red Cross, to a five year operation that has just wrapped up…this situation will take years and years and years. When you drive through Iwate, Miyagi or Fukushima, you find yourself looking at what you could only describe as ghost-scapes. There are great swaths of the coast that have become ghost towns and the debris is in concentrations that most of us haven’t seen from a natural disaster. In Miyagi province alone it’s something between 15 and 18 million, it is estimated, tons of debris. That’s the equivalent of 23 years of waste on a normal scale. Just moving that stuff, it’s a massive project.