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Access to Basics Improves, But Future Uncertain for Japan Evacuees

Japanese Red Cross volunteers hand out emergency kits at evacuation centers. Photo by Japanese Red Cross Society.

Patrick Fuller, Asia Pacific communications manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies spoke with the NewsHour Tuesday about the challenges ahead for Japan’s hundreds of thousands of evacuees. Read excerpts from the conversation below.

NewsHour: What is the latest on the humanitarian situation in Japan, both around the nuclear reactor in Fukushima and for people evacuated from the earthquake and tsunami?

pf.JPGPatrick Fuller, IFRC: The government ordered the evacuation of thousands of people around the nuclear reactors, so I think almost 200,000 people have moved out of the 30-kilometer zone. The situation there is very difficult because there are a lot of people crowded into a fairly limited number of evacuation centers like school buildings and sports halls. There is a lot of uncertainty about whether the evacuation zone will actually widen or whether the situation will improve. People obviously want to return to their homes, but for some people that will be very difficult.

In terms of the population affected by the tsunami, we are looking at probably 350,000 plus people who were evacuated or have had to leave their homes or simply have no homes to go back to. These people are living again in public buildings in very difficult conditions, sleeping on the floor on mattresses, on strips of cardboard. A lot of them are elderly.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published the below chart on the location of evacuees and confirmed deaths Tuesday:

NewsHour: What are the challenges now in providing necessities for the evacuees?

Fuller: They’ve been getting food–a fairly irregular supply of food–but that is improving now. But the big challenges are what happens to these people? For the foreseeable future in the coming weeks I think a lot of these people are going to remain in these shelters.

But there are limited supplies of water, people can’t really wash, they need to improve sanitation and a lot of people are fairly traumatized.

One of our concerns are for the people remaining in their houses…access to food supplies in the shops is very limited because there are fuel shortages and fuel rationing and getting shops resupplied in the areas that have been affected has been really difficult.

NewsHour: Why have supplies been irregular? Is it a supply problem or a distribution issue?

Fuller: It’s a little bit of both. There is a supply and demand problem but bear in mind the earthquake caused considerable damage to the country’s infrastructure. A couple of refineries were damaged and that meant they had to move fuel from different parts of the country and if you think about 300,000 plus people who are suddenly homeless overnight, putting in place mechanisms to ensure that sufficient food is channeled to these people is a huge task…on the first day they were sharing a bowl of rice and a few snacks, after a few days they were getting two meals a day and now they are getting three cooked meals a day in most places. It’s difficult getting supplies through. It’s taken a bit of time but if you compare this to a disaster in any other country what they’ve achieved in a relatively short space and time is impressive.

NewsHour: What are the medical needs now?

Fuller: A lot of the serious injuries were med-evaced to hospitals in the area and further inland, and a lot of the cases we are seeing now, particularly the elderly, who require medication for chronic illnesses like hypertension and diabetes, they need kidney dialysis. They need proper care and attention and it’s very difficult to give that to them in the conditions in which they are living. The Red Cross is running a lot of clinics in the evacuation centers, we’ve got about 700 staff doctors and nurses that come from all over the country…A lot of what they are seeing is infectious diseases, influenza stomach viruses, that sort of thing which easily spread when people are living in close quarters. The cold weather hasn’t helped at all. It’s been below zero, it’s been snowing during the day.

Some people are in great shock, they’ve lost relatives, family members. It’s a very difficult time for them. The Japanese Red Cross have over 2,000 trained psychological counselors and they will be deploying with the medical teams to see what support they can give to people in these situations.

NewsHour: Is the Red Cross involved in efforts to begin constructing temporary housing?

Fuller: It’s possible we are looking at that but it’s primarily the government’s responsibility and I think they are committed to building 30,000 prefabricated houses and that’s started already. It’s a massive task, a massive undertaking but they have embarked on this kind of project before, after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

NewsHour: The situation with the nuclear reactors, how has that affected Red Cross operations?

Fuller: I think in a way it’s ensured that the media focus remains on Japan, which obviously has helped generate support around the world really. It hasn’t affected our operations directly, it’s placed additional burdens on the teams working in Fukushima because obviously there are a lot more people who have been evacuated in the areas. I think there has possibly been a slight nervousness among Japanese Red Cross medical staff about whether they want to go work in these areas, but they have and people continue to volunteer.

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