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Japan Tsunami Response Moves from Rescue to Relief

Bitterly cold, snowy weather made relief efforts in northeast Japan extremely difficult Wednesday, said Kirsten Mildren, Asia regional advocacy officer for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She spoke with the NewsHour from Tokyo, where a U.N. team is consulting with the Japanese government on the response. During the interview, yet another strong aftershock hit the country. Read excerpts from the conversation below:

NewsHour: What is the latest on the search and rescue efforts in northeast Japan?

Mildren: [The government’s] immediate focus for the last four or five days has been on trying to save people and rescue people. At the same time they are trying to clear roads, repair bridges, clear as much as they can and in fact how much they have repaired is quite astonishing.

Their biggest challenge at the moment is the lack of fuel. The search and rescue teams that are up in these areas are finding it very hard to get around because they can’t find transport and they don’t have the fuel, so that’s probably the biggest challenge that they have.

The prime minister announced yesterday that operations would start to focus on relief and I think that anyone who is looking at this disaster and the fact that you have incredibly cold weather, you have not had many survivors found in the last 24 hours…there’s probably not that many more people that could be saved so eventually the government has made that decision that the operation needs to focus very much on the living and getting them the supplies they need so they can be saved.

NewsHour: Are there areas that have still not been reached by rescue teams?

Mildren: There are still areas that the emergency response teams are still struggling to get to, really that’s because of logistical challenges. At the moment they’ve got this terrible cold front coming through, they’ve got snow, they’ve got rain. They’ve got no transport to get there because so many of the roads have been destroyed and so many of the areas were inundated with water so they have all of these isolated areas that they are trying to get into but they can only get in by boat or by air in most cases. And now with the poor visibility of the rain and the snow that is here today it is really making any sort of relief operations extremely difficult.

NewsHour: What kind of presence does the U.N. have in country at the moment?

Mildren: This is a really, really unusual operation compared to what the U.N. usually does in this sort of disaster. This is an emergency in one of the richest countries in the world and one of the most disaster-prepared countries in the world so even though there are nearly half a million people who are now homeless and in evacuation centers, the government is very much in control of this emergency and able to provide them with shelter and what have you, so our traditional role is completely changed here. The government of Japan has asked us to come in but to play a role that’s supporting them and it’s much more about giving them advice on how to handle all the thousands of international offers of assistance…and we are playing an information management roll as well.

The U.N. is also involved with the international urban search and rescue teams so there are about 13 teams which have more than 600 people involved. The urban search and rescue are teams from all around the world, about 14 countries at the moment from Mongolia to the United States has a big team. These are people that are the specialized disaster response people in their own country.

NewsHour: Are the needs of the evacuees being met? Are there supplies that are running low?

Mildren: [The government] is asking for water, they’re asking for mattresses, blankets, they are asking for latrines — but they are not asking for the world to provide that and I think that has to be made really clear. The issue is that they don’t have the capacity right now to accept the world’s donations and the biggest challenge they have is actually getting into these places. So even the private sector and civil society of Japan has mobilized a huge amount of goods but their biggest challenge is actually getting it to these regions. They probably have a lot of what they need in country, their biggest challenge is getting it there.

NewsHour: Are there any longer-term plans being made for housing evacuees while relief efforts continue?

Mildren: The government already has a plan in terms of building temporary accommodations. They wanted to have 600 temporary shelters to be built within two weeks, an additional 4,200 shelters to be constructed in four weeks, and 30,000 shelters in two months, which is amazing. I have not heard these sort of figures before so they definitely have a plan.

NewsHour: What role are NGOs playing in the response?

Mildren: There are about 13 international NGOs that are in the country that are responding and they are doing that through local partners…but it’s not like what like what you usually have such as in Haiti or Pakistan when you have a major earthquake on this scale when you have hundreds and hundreds of NGOs. Here it is very much the government that is responding to this, they have about 80,000 troops out there including the fire service, the police, the U.S. military that is also providing assistance.

This is really just a very, very unusual emergency and each day it seems to get a little bit worse and worse…it really just seems like everything is coming against them at once.

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