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Aftershock: The Continuing Effects of Japan's March 11, 2011 Earthquake
(Released February 2012)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  

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March–June: Earthquake, Shelters, Fukushima Meltdown

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The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 and the tsunami that followed it created a level of chaos and devastation that was initially hard to even calculate. A report on March 12 listed the death toll at 413 and the number of missing at 784. Authorities were quoted as saying they expected the death toll to top 1,000 (Roach). Around 215,000 people were in emergency shelters, including 100,000 people from Fukushima, many of whom were ordered to evacuate the area near the damaged nuclear reactors (“215,000 in shelters”).  As the tsunami swept inland, submerging fields, smashing buildings, and leaving several entire towns under water, fires engulfed large waterfront areas in northeastern Japan. Many people were buried under rubble or trapped on the tops of buildings. By March 12, 50,000 troops had been sent out on rescue operations. A total of 190 military planes and 25 ships were deployed (Roach).

Tohoku after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami
An aerial view of damage in the Tohoku region with black smoke coming from the Nippon Oil Sendai oil refinery

On March 15, the reported number of deaths was around 3,300 and 450,000 people were living in shelters (Thomson). By March 22, 8,805 people had been confirmed dead, 12,664 were listed as missing, and hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes (“Japan quake dead, missing”). By late April, 27,000 were reported as dead or missing, and the hope that the missing would be found alive had been largely extinguished. The two disasters not only left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, but they also destroyed roads, ports, and farms. The crippled nuclear power plants and damaged infrastructure left many of the remaining homes without power or water. The Japanese government said the damage could cost around $309 billion, which would make it the world's most expensive natural disaster to date (Kageyama).

A report from April 22, more than a month after the tsunami, said around 135,000 survivors were living in approximately 2,500 shelters around Japan while other survivors were staying in temporary housing or with relatives (Kageyama). For the most part, schools or community centers were being used as shelters. Often dozens of families lived on gymnasium floors sectioned off by orderly cardboard walls. Food and bathing areas were available but often necessity created ridged schedules for daily life such as meal times and sleep times.

Soon after the disaster, the government released statements committing to subsidize emergency shelters provided by affected prefectures as well as nearby prefectures not directly affected by the earthquakes or tsunami. The Japanese government also committed to defraying the costs of feeding the survivors under the disaster relief act (Japan, Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare). These prefectures were, of course, somewhat unprepared for a disaster of such magnitude. With limited fuel and damaged roads, there were difficulties providing the survivors with food and medical care in the first few days after the disaster. Many of the survivors living in shelters were elderly people in need of daily medication that treated conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes. With their medications lost in the destruction and no medical aid yet available, dozens of elderly people died in shelters from pre-existing medical conditions (Adicodrean1967). The lack of food, water, heating supplies, and medicine also left victims susceptible to pneumonia, various strains of flu, and other infectious diseases (“Health concerns”). The Red Cross and the Japanese government began dispatching medical staff and aid as soon as possible. The government sent out close to 500 medical staff members, including dental staff, nurses, physical therapists, and pharmacists. A group of 13 doctors was also sent to the Fukushima area to carry out radiation screenings to 'alleviate concerns of irradiation' (Japan, Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare). Private volunteers with medical training also began arriving at the shelters along with donations of food to help the survivors.

In April, the cabinet approved a first installment of $50 billion in reconstruction funding to begin the building of 100,000 temporary homes for survivors. There were plans to build 30,000 temporary homes by the end of May and the remaining 70,000 after that (Kageyama). The units built were often small row houses resembling two trailers pushed together with corrugated tin roofs. Many people felt that the construction of temporary housing moved quite slowly. The Japanese government chose to complete most of the construction without help from other governments. Finding appropriate plots on which to build the shelters was one of the barriers involved. Often the only available land had been in school yards. With more than 130,000 people registered at shelters and an overall estimated 500,000 persons displaced by both the destruction caused by the tsunami and the evacuation zone around the Fukushima power plants, people were eager to have temporary housing, however more than six weeks after the disaster, only 395 units had been completed (Johnson).

In the weeks immediately following the disaster, many in the world marveled at how orderly and harmoniously the Japanese victims dealt with the devastation around them. There were no rapes or violence and very little looting. Many of the problems that follow natural disasters did not occur in Japan (Jones). Stories of how life in the shelters quickly ordered itself flooded the media. However as weeks and months wore on, the strain became more and more pronounced. A 63 year old man living in one of the largest shelters, a sports arena housing around 1,000 people, said in an interview. “I've pretty much given up. All I do every day is eat, sleep and watch TV. Every day seems so long. I'm in my 60s. … I have nothing to hold on to and I'm too old to start over” (Talmadge). There is a pervasive feeling of hopelessness particularly among the Fukushima evacuees, who may remain in the shelters for a full year before the nuclear issues are more resolved. Mental health experts are becoming increasingly concerned about PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. In the two months following March 11, around 3,000 evacuees were hospitalized for problems related to stress, fatigue, or poor sanitation. Many more required treatment but have not been hospitalized (Talmadge).

According to a professor who studied the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, 70 percent of the 253 residents of temporary shelters have since died of liver failure as a result of heavy drinking. Another doctor was quoted as saying “A lot of people drink to self-medicate themselves from afflictions such as anxiety, depression, nervous breakdown. As alcohol has a relaxation effect for most people, it helps to alleviate these symptoms.” In one notable incident following the 2011 earthquake, a middle aged man in a shelter in Iwate, had hidden alcohol, got drunk and started screaming at those around him (Japan, Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare). Doctors believe many people will need long term support and treatment.

Shelter for Japanese earthquake and tsunami refugees
People stay close to the heater at a shelter at Yamada town in Iwate prefecture on March 16, 2011.

Other evacuees find themselves facing severe financial hardship. With both homes and businesses destroyed, unemployment has been running around 90 percent in some areas (Jones).  Recognizing the problem, the government has attempted to provide work for evacuee, mostly performing labor in affected areas. Measures have also been enacted to encourage outside businesses to hire evacuees (Japan, Employment Security Bureau). Unfortunately, many of the jobs cannot offer a sufficient living wage.  Permission has been given to defer government pension payments (Japan, Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare) so that many people are not currently receiving the pensions they had counted on prior to the disaster. Hundreds of millions of dollars of charitable contributions have been sent for the victims. A committee established to distribute donations has decided that families would receive 350,000 Yen for each member killed or missing, while people whose residences were destroyed or severely damaged would receive 180,000 Yen, however only a small fraction of the donations had reached the victims months after the disaster. In many areas, a substantial percent of the town office staff are either dead or missing. Town family registers have been destroyed. Many who are entitled to payments have left their areas of residence to live with relatives and are quite hard to locate. There are difficulties determining who should receive the relief money and where many recipients are, and a shortage of staff to process applications and issue payments. Even if the payments are approved, many victims have lost their bankbooks and ATM cards, making it difficult to transfer payments (“Money not reaching victims”).

With little or no money coming in, some sources say as many as one third of families refuse the opportunity to move into temporary housing. Moving out of emergency shelters means giving up services provided by the government including meals, utilities and medical care.  Residents of temporary housing are also required to pay rent and will be expected to move out of the housing in two years. One couple who jointly receives approximately $200.00 per day for cleaning up rubble say the money they earn barely covers rent, let alone electricity bills or food (Leitsinger). Many people face a choice between the privacy and stability they can get in temporary housing or the steady supply of food they receive in shelters. Others give up their chance for temporary housing due to the inconvenient locations. Some housing is far from either stores or medical services. Some housing is also incomplete at the time it is offered to evacuees. In one area in Miyagi Prefecture, the housing does not have drinkable running water. While water is provided in tanks, older people are unable to carry enough for their daily needs (“Temporary housing”). The struggle also continues for those in affected areas who lost neither homes nor relatives. They may face a relatively long-term situation with no running water, no money and no employment, however they are not entitled to any compensation from the government or aid organizations (Jones).

Go To June–September: Continuing Revelations about Fukushima

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