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Nearing two years after Japan’s worst recorded natural disaster, the area hit by the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami is showing clear signs of recovery. The tsunami caused devastation along a 700km stretch of coastline on the north east of Japan’s Honshu Island. Now, almost 70 per cent of the estimated 22 million tons of debris has been painstakingly cleared, electricity and communications have been restored and local businesses are slowly re-establishing themselves.
However, progress is slow in the hardest-hit towns. Large scale rebuilding of permanent homes has yet to begin, and survivors are anxious about the lack of clear reconstruction plans, particularly those families who were evacuated following the Fukushima nuclear accident who are also anxious about the possible long-term health effects of the disaster.
The Japanese Red Cross Society, which deployed nearly 900 medical teams and hundreds of psychosocial workers to support the relief operation, is now focused on addressing the needs of more than 300,000 people living in temporary accommodation.
“We are doing our utmost to make people comfortable, even though the conditions are cramped and cold in winter. We are also helping to prevent many elderly survivors from falling into emotional isolation and physical inactivity,” said Tadateru Konoe, President of both the Japanese Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Red Cross has provided more than 125,000 families in temporary housing with a set of six electrical appliances – including a television, fridge, rice cooker, hot water dispenser, microwave and electric heaters. These items were distributed to many of the most vulnerable to help them stay warm amid sub-zero winter temperatures.
Psychosocial teams have shifted their focus to temporary housing settlements where they organise activities, such as tea parties and massage sessions for elderly residents.
“People have lost not only their homes, but also their jobs,” Sachiko Abe, a Red Cross psychosocial coordinator in Iwate Prefecture, said. “What they have lost is so great that it’s difficult for them to come to terms with it and move forward; so I feel they really need psychosocial support.”
In practice wellness is made up of both physical and psychological factors.
That’s very much the thinking behind the decision to set up the Smile Park project, an indoor playground aimed at the many children in Fukushima whose families don’t feel it’s safe for them to play out of doors.
“Today I feel very grateful to the Red Cross for creating an indoor play area like this; my two kids look very happy, and they don’t want to go home,” says one mother, Tamami Morino. “We initially registered them for two hours, and then extended their stay for four hours.”
It’s clear that Red Cross will need to play a continuing role in supporting the needs of communities into the future. Also central to the National Society’s response is the conviction that people must have more information and be better prepared for eventualities like this.
Global donations have allowed Red Cross to make a real difference in helping survivors of the tsunami to regain more than $781 million has been donated through national Red Cross Red Crescent societies worldwide. These funds are helping to make residents in temporary housing more comfortable, as well as supporting the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and children. They are also going towards the construction of temporary hospitals and clinics.