Japan: how brutal mother nature can be

I landed just this morning at Tokyo’s International Airport and was greeted by a television screen showing images of a nuclear reactor with the headline, “Explosion at Fukushima reactor.” Very soon after that I felt a couple of aftershocks in quick succession (I soon heard that there have been 400-500 aftershocks since Friday’s quake), and I started to feel quite anxious.

But as the world’s leading independent children’s rights organisation, and knowing that children are the most vulnerable in any emergency, I know I have to knuckle down. We have a strong role to play to help children and their families recover from this disaster.

By now we’ve all seen the images of the strong tsunami that wreaked chaos along the east coast of Japan.  And you might have seen some of the footage of Sendai, the city that was closest to the epicentre of the quake smashed to pieces by the tsunami.

But what’s less well reported is the damage caused to other large population centres, like Asahi City,  in Chiba prefecture, about 80 km from Tokyo, the country’s capital. The authorities estimate nearly 19,000 households in Asahi City have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami. That’s a lot of families in need of help to get back to normality.

I rode to the area in the back of a Save the Children vehicle on a beautiful spring Sunday morning. On the way, it was almost possible to be lulled into a false sense of security. There were no signs that we were headed to a disaster area and no signs at all of earthquake damage to buildings and homes. I know now that this is testament to Japan’s strict building codes that ensure all buildings are built to withstand even the most severe earthquakes.

But no government, however wealthy, can be expected to prevent ten-metre tsunami waves smashing down on and disintegrating articulated trucks, houses, schools and — tragically— people.

And it was this new reality that I faced on arrival to Asahi city.

Along the sea front, homes in Asahi were decimated and have been left caked in mud. I saw people sweeping mud from their homes. They weren’t having much success.

The streets nearest the beach were full of bizarre sights — overturned vehicles wedged in houses or leaning on walls. These scenes are similar to ones I saw in Aceh following the Boxing Day tsunami, but I’m always in awe of how brutal mother nature can be.

A mother and baby who have sought shelter at IIzuka Primary School in Asahi, Japan.

Children afraid of water and desperate to get back to school

The most distressing experience for me was meeting Natsumi, only 10 years old, and Nao, just 11. They were afraid of the water and desperate to return to school to be with friends they’d not seen since the earthquake and tsunami.

I next met the Takane family who, along with hundreds of other families, had sought shelter in one of 17 classrooms at IIzuka Primary School. Mum Mariko and her four children Yuto, 8, Aika, 7, Kanato, 1, and newborn Amihi had been living in one of those small classrooms since Friday.

They told me that, at first, they were afraid to go home, but once they summoned the courage to return they found there was no water supply and they had no choice but to return to the school for shelter.

Continuing on to meet others, I realised that the Takane’s story was not uncommon and would, no doubt, be playing out right up and down the east coast of Japan’s most densely populated island.

Child friendly spaces

Today’s trip here has been part of Save the Children’s assessment of the extent of the damage to help us determine how best we can contribute to the aid relief here. Hearing the stories of families in Asahi, we were left in no doubt that we should start setting up what we call child friendly spaces, as we have done in response to previous tsunamis.  These spaces are effectively a safe space where children can play with other children of a similar age, under close supervision from responsible adults.

The idea is to relieve the stress on parents and to give them a break from childcare duties as they register for emergency assistance, try to find food, locate friends and family members and, in the longer term, sort out their jobs and housing.

But our main priority in setting up these spaces and in all our work here now is to help children return to as normal an environment as possible (given the circumstances). Our experience in decades of disaster response shows us that children must be returned to a normal routine as quickly as possible to help ward off the risk of long-term psychological problems.

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