Responders Rush to Aid Japan Victims, Evacuees

BY Talea Miller  March 14, 2011 at 1:04 PM EDT

Tens of thousands of rescue workers are descending on Japan’s northeast coast following the devastating earthquake and tsunami Friday that killed at least 10,000, according to a recent Associated Press estimate.

More than half a million people have been evacuated from their homes in the region, and aid groups are rushing to provide shelter, food and medical care for those affected by the disaster.

The Japanese Red Cross dispatched 62 response teams that are now assessing damage to hard-hit areas, setting up mobile clinics and providing emergency medical care at hospitals. Watch a slide show of some of their efforts so far, with images courtesy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:

“The Japanese Red Cross’ primary role in the response is taking care of the more than half a million people who have been evacuated now, both from the initial tsunami and from the area around the two [nuclear] reactors,” said Mark Preslan, Asia-Pacific regional director for the American Red Cross, who has been in touch with his Japanese counterparts.

Japanese Red Cross medical teams are deploying to emergency areas to act as first responders as well, and staffing hospitals and mobile units to deal with the injured.

Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies described some of the injuries seen in the hardest hit areas in a statement from Ishinomaki, Japan:

Many of the wounded are burn victims whose homes caught fire when the diesel from sinking fishing boats ignited the mass of debris being carried inland by the tidal surge…Some of the seriously injured taken to the hospital are people who were swept up in the tsunami. They’re being stretchered in with internal injuries and severe wounds. Others are at risk from pneumonia having inhaled large quantities of contaminated sea water.

It is too early to tell how long some of the evacuated families may need to stay at the more than 2,500 shelters that have been set up for the displaced, said Preslan, but it appears many will not be able to return to their communities for some time and will need sustained assistance.

The growing humanitarian crisis brings back some painful memories of the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami near Indonesia, but preparations did pay off this time around, Preslan said.

“One of the differences is the early warning system that was in place and highly functional in Japan which was unfortunately not present in some of the countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami,” he said. “So there were many more people saved I think in this instance by early warning and preparedness.”

The Japanese Red Cross is assessing its needs and will make decisions on needed support in coming days, but so far the American Red Cross has not deployed any teams to the disaster zone.

Aid groups are saying the elderly and children are at particular risk in this disaster. UNICEF USA announced Monday it is taking the unusual step of raising money for the “unprecedented” disaster in Japan, a country that is normally on the donor side of UNICEF’s efforts.

Save the Children has two teams on the ground in Sendai and said Monday the group estimates 100,000 children have been displaced by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor scares.

“In a lot of these evacuation centers there is still not running water available or electricity,” said Save the Children’s Chief Operating Officer Carolyn Miles.
“Obviously these conditions are really, really tough.”

The group will be setting up “safe spaces” for children to utilize, that address some of the psycho-social issues of a disaster like this. In addition to basic needs for food, water and shelter, children need to have a place to play and feel like children to deal with the trauma they have experienced, the organization said.

“If you don’t deal with the trauma piece early, kids can kind of never get over that,” said Miles, including consequences like debilitating, long-term anxiety. “It is really traumatic for kids but if you give kids a safe place to be…they can bounce back.”