Relief workers not ready when Japan quake hit, says adviser

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am


Although many Japanese were prepared for earthquakes, the nation's relief workers were not ready when disaster struck in March, the senior emergency adviser for Save the Children's global emergency team said on a visit to Hong Kong.

Stephen McDonald told how he arrived in Japan immediately after the quake and tsunami to find many Japanese relief workers had little experience in dealing with a crisis.

Leading a team of 20, most of them Japanese, McDonald said very few of them had worked in an emergency. And when they knew about the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, many of them started panicking.

'It caught everyone by surprise and caused a lot of anxiety among the staff and the population we were working with.'

As the man in charge, he said, he made an effort to hide his own anxiety from his colleagues.

'The moment that I was most worried was when international media outlets started cancelling interviews with us, because they were evacuating their staff,' he said. The team later decided it would not work within 80 kilometres of the reactor.

McDonald, who is based in Australia, arrived in Tokyo the day after the March 11 quake. He travelled to Sendai and other cities along the coast and remained in the country for a month. 'The cities were completely wiped out.'

McDonald added: 'As an outsider coming in, we've a sense of detachment, but for the Japanese, it's difficult to see this happen in their own backyard.'

One of the first things his team did on arriving in the quake-hit cities was set up spaces where children could play, draw and run around. 'In many situations, the population is treated as an entire group. Children are very often overlooked,' McDonald said.

'Seeing the smiles on kids' faces they had not seen in past days made a difference.'

McDonald also helped in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. He said the difference between the two was that basic survival needs were met in Japan and there was no need to give out as many relief packs.

Instead they had to focus on rebuilding the community. 'The government was quickly in action. Everyone was sheltered, had food, water and access to health care ... We're supporting them to take care of the population instead.'

He said the country had a long way to go to rebuild the devastated areas, and stressed that the whole community must be involved to make it successful.

'If the community feels itself in recovery, it recovers faster and they will have a sense of dignity and pride. It should be about more than financial support.'