Japan quake: Aid worker's diary

Kathy Mueller is working for the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) in Japan, which was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on 11 March. This is her account.

Day Four

It is freezing here in northern Japan. Every day we are driving through heavy snow. At night, the mercury dips below zero. I shudder as I climb into my sleeping bag, beneath the blankets of the hotel bed, not even bothering to change out of my clothes. Fuel is still being rationed, so there is no heat here.

Elderly women sit around the only space heater in an evacuation centre in Iwate prefecture in northeastern Japan on 29 March 2011 Fuel shortages mean that many are experiencing severe cold in evacuation centres

And as I drift off, I think about how cold the people in the evacuation centres must be. I visited one in Yamada, a youth centre that is now housing approximately 40 handicapped elderly tsunami survivors. They can't feed themselves. They can't take care of themselves. They can't move.

During the day, these frail, crumpled people sit bundled up in blankets around the space heater that is inadequate to warm the large common room. At night, they are moved to individual sleeping quarters, where there are no heaters. I wonder - will they have survived the devastating events of 11 March only to succumb to the cold?

Japanese Red Cross doctors tell me they are now treating more patients for influenza and hypothermia. Body temperatures are plummeting in the cold weather. People, particularly the vulnerable elderly population, are shivering and confused. It is a challenge to meet their needs.

Red Cross teams have searched but cannot find adequate shelter for them. Even if they did find better accommodation, there isn't the fuel to transport people and most don't want to leave. They want to stay in surroundings they are familiar with, even if those surroundings are full of broken buildings, twisted metal, and overturned cars.

Day Three

On a normal day, the gym at this youth centre in Yamada, Iwate prefecture, would be filled with kids, shooting hoops, or playing volleyball or badminton. But these are not normal days. This gym is now doubling as an evacuation centre; it is home to almost 300 earthquake and tsunami survivors.

Katsuko (R) and her husband Kisaburo Katsuko (R) and her husband Kisaburo

They huddle together on blankets on the floor, their meagre belongings crammed tightly into plastic bags form a mini-fortress around their allotted space.

An elderly couple invite me to sit. Katsuko does all the talking. Her husband, Kisaburo, is now 80 years old, and his hearing is failing him. She tells me their house is on top of a hill and survived the disaster, but they don't have water or electricity so they now live in the evacuation centre.

She talks about losing her brother, nieces and nephews when the giant waves swept through their town. She says many more are still missing, but she doesn't cry. She says she can't show tears. She is not the only one who is suffering.

Katsuko says she is grateful for the three meals she and her husband are receiving at the centre, for the heat that is provided. She has managed to have two showers since the tsunami, humbly visiting a relative's house to do so.

Katsuko says she needs nothing, explaining that she can at least return to her house to retrieve clothing. She wants us to focus on her neighbours, who lost absolutely everything.

These are long days in the evacuation centres. There is not much to do, but Katsuko doesn't complain. She passes the time sleeping, chatting with other ladies, and walking around the centre to keep in shape.

She and Kisaburo have experienced a lot during their 50 years of marriage. When I ask for their wedding date, she laughs, saying she can't remember. It is then her husband speaks for the first time. "January 16th," he says with a smile. "You shouldn't forget that!" A small moment of levity at a time when laughter is hard to come by.

Day Two

Today we visited Iwate prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Sitting north of the epicentre, more than 70km of its coastline was obliterated by the 10m-high wave.

Snow flurries and cold temperatures hamper relief efforts in northeastern Japan. This photo was taken in Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture. Snow flurries and cold temperatures are hampering relief efforts in north-eastern Japan

Electricity, for the most part, is still out. The main water supply has been severed and more than 45,000 survivors are now housed in 370 evacuation centres. Their immediate needs are a regular supply of food, water, warm clothing, heat, medicines and bedding.

A Japanese Red Cross logistician tells me that people are happy to see him and his team. But he admits they can't adequately meet people's needs, largely because there isn't enough fuel to get supplies or aid workers where they need to go.

On the way to Yamada town, where he is working, we passed many petrol stations that were closed; others had queues of cars stretching for kilometres.

Even though some were making emergency vehicles - like those of the Red Cross - a priority, we were still allowed to get only 10 litres at a time.

The lack of fuel is one of several obstacles in the struggle to help the people of Japan get back on their feet.

But things are expected to improve in the near future. One of the country's largest oil refineries is back on-line, and that should help ease the shortage.

Until that happens, I'm afraid recovery is going take longer than anticipated.

Day One

It is my first full day in Japan after arriving from Pakistan, where I was working on flood relief operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Kathy Mueller of the IFRC Kathy Mueller: "Aftershocks is one of the main topics of conversation among colleagues"

Aftershocks is one of the main topics of conversations among my colleagues at the Japanese Red Cross headquarters here in Tokyo. The building is a hub of activity as local staff, dressed in their grey and red emergency gear, co-ordinate everything from the logistics of engaging in such a large-scale relief operation, to determining where to next deploy their medical teams.

The fear of radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant is also much discussed. Today I head into the field; towards Fukushima to meet with one of the Red Cross disaster management teams working in the area. My supervisor reminds me that if I am at all concerned, I don't have to go.

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