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.