International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Japan's tsunami: Impressions of a city that 'stood no chance'

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) continues to support the relief efforts of three Japanese aid groups assisting survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left thousands dead and inflicted extensive material damage to buildings and infrastructure in northeastern Japan. The three IRC-supported groups – the Association for Aid and Relief Japan (AAR), JEN Japan and Peace Winds Japan – are distributing food and emergency items to people still living without running water or electricity. They are also providing services to help survivors through the emotional and physical recovery process.

The IRC's Japan advisor, Shinko Tana, recently visited the disaster zone. Here are some of her impressions:

Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, Japan  - Driving along the Japanese coast, you immediately see the scope of the destruction that followed the earthquake and the tsunami.  It's far greater than pictures can convey.  Amazingly, some houses are still standing, but as you get closer you can see that only their exterior walls are left -- the rooms inside were completely washed away.

I am on my way to Rikuzentakata, one of the worst-hit cities, with the Association for Aid and Relief Japan (AAR), one of three aid groups funded by the IRC.  Even five miles away from the sea, debris pushed by the tsunami can be seen along the Kesennuma River, in stark contrast to the surrounding cherry blossoms in full bloom.  The city of roughly 8,000 households lost 80 percent of its homes. More than 2,200 of its residents are dead or missing.

AAR, which operates in the hard-hit Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, is focusing on assistance to people with disabilities, the elderly, and others who have difficulty accessing humanitarian aid. So far, over 45,000 people have been assisted by the group. Aside from aid distributions, AAR is providing transportation so that survivors can get to hospitals for treatment. The group has also been providing aid to people living on smaller, largely neglected islands within the disaster zone. Until AAR arrived, I was told, people in these communities saw little aid for the first three weeks of the disaster.

Some 124 miles south of here lies the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. AAR is one of the very few aid groups working in Fukushima, which has received little assistance compared to other areas that were overwhelmed by the tsunami. "Within days of the disaster, we distributed food, water and other essential items to victims," says Mariko Aoki, program coordinator for AAR.

When we arrive at the outskirts of Rikuzentakata, not even a pile of rubble is left to indicate where the city's levee once stood.  At more than 21 feet high it was considered indestructible, our driver, Masanobu Tada, says. When he first heard that the city had been badly damaged, he refused to believe it.

"I thought that there would be no way that the tsunami could have gone over the levee," he told me. "When my sons were young, I used to take them to that beach and it used to be an effort for them to climb that levee. When I heard that the levee was wiped away too, I knew that the rest of the city stood no chance."

Standing in what used to be the heart of Rikuzentakata, I am surrounded by neighborhoods that have been absolutely obliterated.  It is hard to imagine that this was once a thriving fishing port and resort town whose colorful festivals and magnificent, tree-lined coast attracted tourists from all over Japan.

The massive earthquake that sparked the tsunami caused low-lying Rikuzentakata to sink nearly three feet, putting many areas off-limits to families who want to rebuild.  But residents I spoke with say that they plan to stay close to home. They are proud of their heritage and the area's natural beauty. They hope to see their city rebuilt and to welcome tourists once more.

Before March 11, these visitors wouldn't have had sweeping views of the ocean as they explored Rikuzentakata's streets -- it was hidden behind the levee and the city's famous wall of coastal pines. Both were washed away in seconds by the powerful tsunami wave. Now there is only one pine tree left:  Survivors here say it's a symbol of hope.

Next: Helping 'overlooked' tsunami survivors


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1 comment


I am going to raise $500.00+

I am going to raise $500.00+ through an Origami For Charity booth at the Villa Park Picnic this Sunday. I do not want people to forget that there are 14,000 people missing and +13,000 dead. I want those survivors to know that they are not forgotten and groups like IRC are working hard to keep the light burning!