Three months after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated regions of Japan, CRS partner Caritas Japan has helped thousands of survivors as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Greg Auberry of Catholic Relief Services’ Asia team visited Japan in early June 2011 and reports on what he saw.
You visited some of the hardest-hit coastal areas of Japan. What did they look like?
Words can’t even describe it. Even the images from television don’t show the totality. When you see it in person, you understand the power and devastation of the tsunami and the randomness of the destruction. So much is utterly, utterly destroyed.
Who was hit the hardest?
The affected area is rural, so there are many aging fisherfolk and farmers. Their children have moved to cities, so they’ve been living on the coast on their own.
Of course, there are many younger people affected too—children and their parents. As of the end of May, over 100,000 people were still living in shelters like school gymnasiums, pagodas or churches.
What did CRS partner Caritas Japan do in the first stage of the disaster?
Caritas mobilized 1,000 volunteers to clear rubble and distribute supplies like blankets, health items, and underwear. When no cooking facilities were available, Caritas also fed 3,500 people hot meals every day in church soup kitchens and evacuation centers.
The government of Japan has been extremely effective in helping victims, but Caritas has been able to fill in some gaps. For example, the government provided food like noodles, but with electricity down, there’s not always hot water to cook the noodles. So Caritas arranged for hot water so thousands of people could eat the noodles.
How is the state of mind of the survivors?
They’ve lost loved ones and their homes and their source of income, so they are extremely traumatized. Now they may never be able to go back to their homes; the government is working on relocating them.
You can imagine the great stress on these people, who are mainly elderly, thinking to themselves, “Where am I moving? Who will my neighbors be?” These people are in the twilight of their lives.
What is Caritas doing to help them deal with this stress?
What Caritas does is bring volunteers who set up café-like spaces where people can come and just talk, chat, express things. They also provide special support for children through various games and celebrating festivals. This is really important when you’re trying to deal with this terrible trauma that’s happened to you.
The volunteer mental health workers are placed either in the Sendai Diocese Support Office or in one of four base offices.
Caritas is also getting trained mental health professionals to provide more sophisticated care for those who need it.
What comes next?
In September the government of Japan is going to relocate these 19,000 people to what they’re calling “temporary shelter,” which could mean three years. For those of working age who can’t go back home, restoring their source of income will be a major challenge in the coming years, and Caritas is looking for ways to help.
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