Witnessing Decimated Sendai

Iwoolverton Ian Woolverton, Save the Children Media Manager

Sendai, Japan

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The clock in the vehicle says it's 5:44am, as we pass through a police road block approximately 25 miles from Sendai, the city of more than one million people affected by the tsunami and earthquake.

Even though the roads were empty, it took ten hours to drive this far north from Toyko.

We're in a two vehicle convoy stuffed to the gills with basic essentials such as water, food and toilet paper as well as one van brimming with enough gear to set up a child friendly space.

As the sun starts its slow rise, I make out mountainous silhouettes on either side of the road. The outside temperature is close to freezing and there is thick grey fog. Apart from the cold it is a beautiful place.

I wonder though what unsettling sites await us in the coastal areas of Sendai?

Fact is this is my first experience of a disaster in a developed country, and I can't quiet get to grips with the fact that there is mass devastation ahead.

I'm even more perplexed as we pull into the city. Apart from a large group of Japanese engineers in dark blue uniforms and white hard hats congregated in one ultra-modern office block, there are no clues that a major earthquake occurred here last week.

It's not until you leave the city limits and head north-east that the extent of the tsunami damage, triggered by the earthquake, becomes clear.

Entire fields are full of debris including corrugated iron, furniture, toys, up-turned cars as well as a bewildering array of bits and pieces. It's possible too that human bodies are buried somewhere beneath the rubble.

SENDAI_012_85101Save the Children team leader Stephen McDonald surveys the aftermath of the the earthquake triggered tsunami which devastated Sendai, Japan.
(Photo by Jensen Walker/ Getty Images for Save the Children)

The scenes of devastation here remind me of what I witnessed all over Aceh Province following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

It's horrible to think that children might have been killed in the tsunami, or that some of them might have become separated from their families during the earthquake and disaster.

Over the coming weeks and months in Japan, Save the Children will provide psycho-social support to children in the form of child friendly spaces.


Learn more about our recovery response to the earthquake in Japan.

Help Us Respond to the Japan Earthquake Recovery. Please Donate Now.

Japanese Family Huddles in Emergency Shelter

Iwoolverton Ian Woolverton, Save the Children Media Manager

Tokyo, Japan

Monday, March 14, 2011

Save the Children's Ian Woolverton reports from Japan where he is one of several staff spearheading our relief efforts. Ian met the Takane family, who are among the thousands of families displaced by the tragic disasters in recent days. Here he shares their touching story.

Yuto Takane, 8, and his mother Mariko, siblings Aiki, 7, Kanato, 1, and newborn Amihi have sought shelter at IIzuka Primary School in Asahi City. They were made homeless by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Honshu, Japan's most densely populated island, on Friday.

YUTO_AIKI_AMIHI_KANATO_85039Yuto, Aiki and Kanato pose for the camera.
Photo Credit: Ian Wolverton

Forced to live on a classroom floor Yuto is missing his home and his friends. "I would like to be with my friends in school. I like sports and playing soccer."

"I have been living in the classroom and want to go home."

His mother Mariko is anxious for the family to return home, but there is no water supply at their house, so she cannot bathe the children.

"The problem is the water. All the water is gone, so everything is very dirty."

She is also anxious because her eldest children cannot sleep. "Before the earthquake they never minded, but now they cannot sleep."

Mariko says her children are restless and have nothing to do in the school. "They needs books, toys and DVDs to keep them happy."

Yuto's sister Aika says she would like to play but does not know whether she should since everyone is afraid. "At the weekend we play, but today we can't because everyone is sad."

Save the Children plans to establish Child Friendly Spaces in earthquake and tsunami affected areas to give children a safe place to play with their friends, while allowing parents to focus on other priorities such as registering for emergency assistance.


Learn more about our recovery response to the earthquake in Japan.

Help Us Respond to the Japan Earthquake Recovery. Please Donate Now.


Surveying the Destructive Force of the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Iwoolverton Ian Woolverton, Save the Children Media Manager

Tokyo, Japan

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Landing at Tokyo's international airport this morning after a long flight from Sydney, Australia, I looked up at a television screen to see images of a nuclear reactor with a headline, "Explosion at Fukushima reactor."

Add to that an aftershock or two (there have been 400-500 aftershocks since Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami), and I started to question why I was here.

But as the world's leading independent organization for children, we are in the business of helping children and their families affected by disasters at home and overseas as well as in developed and less developed countries.

By now we've all seen the images of the awesome destructive power of the tsunami that wreaked havoc along the east coast of Japan's most densely populated Honshu island, home to famous cities like Tokyo and for all the wrong reasons, Sendai, the city that was smashed to pieces by the tsunami.

But what's less well reported is the damage caused to other centers of population like Asahi City, where I'm headed now. Here the authorities estimate nearly 19,000 households have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Sitting in the back of a Save the Children vehicle on a beautiful spring Sunday morning we speed toward the city.At this point I could be lulled into a false sense of security. There are no signs that we're headed to a disaster area. I can honestly say I have not seen any earthquake damage to buildings and homes. 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, in some areas, 10 metre tsunami waves gobbling up everything from articulated trucks to houses, schools and, tragically, people.

And it is this new reality that I fear will greet us as we draw closer to Asahi City.

So, why have we come here? Why aren't we up north in Sendai? Fact is, there has been so much attention on Sendai, and the Japanese authorities are so good at disaster response that we want to focus our attention on meeting the unmet needs of children and their families in other areas that might get overlooked. I'm not suggesting we will put the needs of children in Sendai to one side. Of course we won't since the needs there are massive, but we want to ensure children up and down the east coast get the help they need as well.

Our ambition in tsunami-affected areas is to open what's known as Child Friendly Spaces, effectively a play 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.

But there's another reason to run Child Friendly Spaces, and that's to allow children to 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.

Arriving in Asahi it is clear many children and their families need help.

Along the sea front, homes have been decimated and become caked in mud. I met people sweeping mud from their homes, without much success it has to be said.

The streets nearest the beach are full of bizarre sights like overturned vehicles wedged in houses or leaning on walls. I've seen these scenes before in places like Aceh following the tsunami in Indonesia, but I'm always in awe of how brutal mother nature can be.

The most distressing experience for me was meeting Natsumi (10) and Nao (11) Nakazawa who 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 also met the Takane family who, along with hundreds of families, had sought shelter in one of 17 classrooms at IIzuka Primary School.

Mom Mariko and her four children Yuto (8), Aika (7), Kanato (1) and newborn Amihi had been living in a small classroom since Friday.'

At first they were afraid to go home, but once they summoned the courage to return they found there was no water supply, leaving them little choice but to return to the school for shelter.

Sadly, I suspect that the Takane's story is one playing out up and down the east coast of Japan's most densely populated island.


Learn more about our recovery response to the earthquake in Japan.

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The Incredible Resilience of Children

Tanya_weinberg Tanya Weinberg, Save the Children manager, media and communications

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

February 24, 2010

Today, as I took a break from a visit to a Save the Children medical clinic in a sprawling tent city that has replaced a posh golf club, a group of smiling, delightful children came to pay me a visit.

Blog photo by Suma Suresh Kids from 8 to 17 wanted to try out their English with me and were patient enough to try and teach me some Creole. Pictured at right, the children help me with my language skills. (Photo credit: Suma Suresh)

They howled with laughter when I made faces of despair at my inability to catch on, but were so polite and considerate as I tried again.

One 17-year-old boy took out the English/Creole picture dictionary he carried in his backpack to teach me more. He would not be going back to school because his school was gone, he told me. “I really want to keep studying,” he said. “But I can’t.”

I think we jointly decided not to dwell on it as smiles started to slip away, because everybody wanted to continue with the fun.

The day before, I was overwhelmed by the joy and laughter and singing of children at one of Save the Children’s Child Friendly Spaces.  This, too, was in the middle of a tent city, where children lived with their surviving relatives but with very few of the comforts of home.

I can’t remember the last time I saw such exuberance. The kids shouted out lyrics in response to one of the community volunteer’s calls as they jumped, jumped, jumped along to the rhythm of the song.

Then it was time for sack races, in which kids shrieked with delight and hoisted the winner to their shoulders like he’d just scored the winning goal at the World Cup.

The Child Friendly Spaces allow kids a chance to be kids again. The kids can have fun, express themselves, and look forward to a nice routine amidst the upheaval of their lives.

It’s incredible how children can bounce back from terrible experiences if they have the right opportunities.

Help Us Respond to the Haiti Earthquake Emergency. Please Donate Now.


Philippines: Children Go to School in Shifts

Latha Caleb, Save the Children country director, Philippines

Oct. 6, 2009  Manila, Philippines

Latha _233 The teams went out to do further assessments in some of the flood affected areas. I was waiting in anticipation to hear from them. Finally they got back and this is what Nida our Emergencies Adviser had to say.

“The children and the communities are still trying to clean up all the mess and the debris that is lying around. Many of the schools have started functioning but the schools also have to double up as evacuation centers. This means there is scarcity of space. We want our Child Friendly Spaces to function, we need to have space for additional toilets to be available, but there is a big constraint of space. There are three shifts per day in the schools – this means some of the children go to school at night! Many of the community members and the children were complaining that due to water logging their legs and feet have been affected by scabies and many of them have cracks on their skins.”

This was very useful information for us and we have now additionally added washing soap with higher sulphur content into the kit for the communities. There is still the challenge of dealing with the toilet facilities in the evacuation centers – what does one do? We made a few calls to other agencies to check how they are handling this situation and found that each one of us is trying o crack this one! Earlier today I went to the Johnson and Johnson office in the Philippines to sign the Memorandum of Agreement and also collect the check that they were giving us in support of the work in the typhoon response. I have been there before but this time I also heard from the many staff there that each one of them has been affected by the typhoon in some way or the other. As we were driving back my driver showed me pictures of the area where he comes from – Laguna – and these were pictures that showed rafts being used by community members to move from one place to the other. He said that he used the raft to get both his children out of the area to a much safer place.

I am excited as tomorrow I would be visiting one of the evacuation centers where the Child Friendly Spaces are functioning. Reuters wants to do a feature on the Child Friendly Space and we want to do a good feature on this. As I step out of my room I see a frenzy of activity going on in the front office – bags of rice – blankets – slippers other items for the kits all being packed and kept ready for distribution. I hear the volunteers listening to the music as they pack.

Tomorrow is another day and we ill be reaching out to many more families and children but for this we need to prepare today!

Learn more about Save the Children's response in the Philippines


American Samoa – Hitting the Ground Sprinting

Josh Madfis, child protection specialist, Save the Children Samoa 

Oct. 4, 2009 – Leone, American Samoa

I arrived in American Samoa three nights ago.  I hit the ground sprinting.  My first goal was to see children affected by this disaster.  I wanted to learn from them and from the parents how they were doing.  The first thing I did Friday morning was visit a shelter in the village of Leone.  Leone was one of the hardest hit villages. The damage there reminded of what I saw in Hurricane Katrina; foundations where homes used to be, mountains of rubble and debris, churches with gaping holes. 

I was immediately moved by warmth of the Samoan people.  They are so kind and open to strangers.  They communicated their fears and worries about their children’s health, well being and future.  The kids were all over the map.  Some jazzed up by being displaced and in shelters, some sick and coughing, some withdrawn and depressed.  There will be a need to address the traumatic events many experienced.  They also needed safe places to play.  Shelters in many cases are in the center of the destruction.  They are surrounded by dangerous debris, broken glass and toxic waste.  Children have little to no clothes and shoes.  I played soccer yesterday with an 8-year-old boy wearing his dad’s old sneakers.  He did pretty well despite this!

I am working to get Child Friendly Spaces established in all the shelters and the FEMA disaster recovery center.  I would also like to get health messages to kids about where it’s safe to play and how to wash and keep their hands clean.

More to come!

Learn more about Save the Children's response in American Samoa