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health hazards impact on relief and recovery

fears of radiation and/or potential nuclear accidents are preventing help from reaching people near the fukushima power plant.

last week, the evacuation zone around the dai-ichi (number 1) plant was established at 20 km radius, and the people living between 20-30 kilometers away were told to stay indoors.

(the u.s. government suggested staying 50 km away from the plant).

i’ve seen several segments on NHK about people in the evacuation zone. some have not left, and can’t or don’t want to leave their houses. for the people living in the 20-30 km zone, there are no stores, etc., and it’s impossible to continue your life without ever going outside. NHK interviewed a doctor who reopened his clinic within the 20-30 km zone, and is treating patients. he said ‘it is the last work of my life.’ now, the government has issued a voluntary evacuation for this zone, because of the difficulty of people to live there.

i’m reminded of new orleans after hurricane katrina, when there was toxic water and other health hazards afoot. the water system had been compromised, although perhaps it hadn’t been that safe to begin with (even before the storm, people who could afford to not drink it didn’t), soil was also contaminated. for people working in relief and especially house gutting, there were dangers of inhaling fine particles, chemicals, and poisonous substances that were in the air while homes were being cleaned up. safe practices and wearing a good mask should protect you, but many people got what was known as the ‘katrina cough.’

after the kobe earthquake, there was a considerable amount of asbestos in the air from damaged buildings. and fires kept rescue workers out of the most damaged areas immediately after the quake.

2 weeks after

today, prime minister kan gave a tv address. it didn’t have much substance to it.

temporary housing is planned for the affected area, in some places to be built by may. (previously, i have read somewhere that it will take a year.) there was also some news earlier this week about a small amount of temporary housing being planned for.

it seems like the nuclear situation….is stabilizing? although now they think that the containment vessel of reactor three may have been compromised, and is the reason for high levels of leaking radioactivity. earlier this week, there was radioactive iodine found in tokyo waters (at levels unsafe for infants), and subsequently other prefectures. similarly, milk and produce from several prefectures has also tested above limits for radioactivity. this is going to really seriously impact farmers in many areas…

day 8, evacucation march 18

almost exactly 1 week after the biggest earthquake japan has ever seen, 9.0 magnitude, and tsunami struck, i left japan to visit my brother in hawaii.

it was a strange feeling, and it had been a hard decision, and it’s difficult to say if it was the right choice. here’s what i know: it made my mother happy and relieved; i will try to take a vacation, which i desperately needed even before this all happened; i wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, so i am sure a little relaxation will help; i’m happy to see my brother; and i am committed to use this time in hawaii to work on getting organized and thinking about what i can do to support the victims of this disaster, and the recovery efforts.

day 6, wednesday march 16

personally, wednesday was one of the most difficult days.

on wednesday, the situation at the nuclear reactor at fukushima became more dangerous, there was a spike in radioactivity, and i felt like the attitude of people changed, both people i know and also the people out at about.

its seemed like some kind of nuclear accident was quite possible. people seemed more serious and somber, you started to be able to hear them talking about the reactor on the trains (before, no one had been mentioning it much in public).

we had our doctoral seminar at the university. it was a relief to be doing something normal, and to see my sensei. i really respect his opinion, and he is of course an expert in disaster and recovery, and calm in the face of most anything. i asked if he would talk a little about what was going on, and he did. he showed us a japanese newspaper with a map with all the towns that were destroyed. there were so many. and many of them are along a very winding coastline–it will be hard to get to them to search for survivors. we talked about the disaster itself, how fast the tsunami had come–faster than the very good warning system that is in place. and about the japanese earthquake warning system. he had an idea to take a ship from the university, load it up with relief goods and volunteers, and sail to the affected area (this idea was later not approved, but i thought it was a pretty creative way to deal with the inability to access certain areas).

one of my colleagues from korea told us she was going back to korea for a few weeks. her mother, like mine, was worried about the situation in japan. her mother had already made several ticket reservations, which my friend had cancelled each time. but she had finally given in. i told my sensei that my mother also desperately wanted me to leave japan (go anywhere! hong kong, europe…etc.) and he said there was no reason i shouldn’t, i.e. no harm in going. this was the first time i started to consider it.

foreigners had started to leave tokyo in some numbers by this time. like me, i think that many had family who were scared what they were hearing in the international media. especially the lack of clarity about which part of japan was affected by the disaster and which part was safe. i certainly don’t think it’s any of my or anyone else’s business what any individual choose to do-to stay, leave tokyo, leave japan, etc. some countries started evacuating their residents, or recommending that people not travel to japan, or leave tokyo. it was a very confusing time for many, i believe, including me. and hard to know who to listen to.

on wednesday night, i taught an english lesson to my friends’ kids. i’ve been teaching them for several months now, and they are really fun kids, elementary school age, 2 girls and 1 little brother. their moms are friends too, and take turns inviting me to have dinner with them after each lesson.

the moms were both really worried, which shocked me. 1, that they were so much more worried than any other japanese people i had seen up until then, and 2, that they weren’t making much of an effort to hide this from their kids. they were saying quite directly that they were scared, that we don’t know what’s going to happen. one of them wanted her parents to come from tokyo to kobe, but they had refused, saying they wouldn’t leave the rest of their family behind. they were worried for their kids (radiation it much more dangerous for children). talking to them, i decided that for my mother’s sake i would try to leave japan for a bit.

i got home and discussed with my evacuee/guests, who had also heard quite alarming news from the german media (one of the most extreme, perhaps). we decided we would look for tickets in the morning. and i slept for a few fretful hours.

stories of rescue, stories of dispair

since i’m writing this now, a week after it all happened, the details of the events of each day kind of blend together. mostly, i remember what i did on what day, or how the situation seemed at that time. but i don’t have a clear chronology in my mind of what the news was reporting.

since the first day, the number of victims who were confirmed dead continued to grow. at one point early on, it became know that there was one town minami sanriku, where 10,000 residents were unaccounted for. there were endless stories of people looking for loved ones, and some tearful reunions on camera. there was a story of a elderly man who was found floating at sea several days after the tsunami, and a stories of entire schools whos students couldn’t be located. stories of jr high school students coming together to provide for the elderly people staying in the evacuation center. there was one story that first reported a man had been found alive in in house, but later it was learned that he had escaped, and then returned later and had passed out. 9 days after the tsunami, there was the hopeful story of a boy and his elderly grandma who had been trapped, but survived to be rescued. but underlying these stories was the theme of the relentless tsunami, the people swept away, and the survivors, many elderly, staying in evacuation centers with no heat, not enough blankets or food. it was a truly terrible and tragic situation, and it felt like there was nothing that we could do to help them right away.

i spoke with a friend on thursday, who was closely involved in the kobe recovery after the ’95 earthquake. she had been on the phone all day, trying to get a truckload of relief supplies sent from hyogo, and somehow it couldn’t be arranged. i didn’t really understand the details, but it was destroying her, and making her have trouble to think clearly. this is a strong woman, who can get just about anything accomplished. but the frustration had pushed her close to tears.

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