Everyday since Friday, I’ve been holding evening conversations with Tomoko Yamashita, my communications counterpart at the Japanese aid organization Peace Winds. Mercy Corps, the humanitarian aid organization that I work for, is partnering with Peace Winds to respond to last weeks’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Today Tomoko sounded a little weary. “We won’t be able to send a helicopter with relief supplies today because we don’t have enough fuel. But we’re sending a van with 600 blankets from another city where we found gasoline.”
For the past two days, Peace Winds has been shuttling two helicopters back and forth to Kesennuma, a city of 70,000 that was destroyed. The helicopters contain tents, food, blankets and other vital supplies. Kesennuma’s evacuated survivors are sleeping in schools, community centers, even shopping malls that have been converted into shelters. The Kesennuma Middle School is now a cramped, debris-strewn home for 700 people who have lost everything.
Now the Peace Winds team – soon to be joined by a team of Mercy Corps emergency responders – is grappling with a nationwide shortage of fuel. But they’re resourceful. If you can’t fly a helicopter out of Tokyo, you drive a van out of somewhere else.
Many people have asked me why Mercy Corps is responding to this earthquake. We work in the world’s toughest, poorest places: Afghanistan, Somalia, North Korea and Sudan, just to name a few. In contrast, Japan is wealthy with a stable, capable government. It’s also the best prepared country in the world for an earthquake, which probably save thousands – if not millions – of lives.
But last week’s earthquake, followed by the tsunami and now the instability of nuclear reactors, has created a highly unusual situation that overwhelmed Japan. Such overwhelming incidents are not unprecedented – think of how difficult it was for the US to respond after Hurricane Katrina. Japan and its people are in dire need of assistance; that’s a need to which we can all respond.
Tomorrow when I talk to Tomoko, I’m hoping she’ll tell me that the van of supplies has reached Kesennuma and that they’ve found a new source of fuel. But even it they haven’t, I know the team will keep forging ahead. The people of Kesennuma don’t have many options.