Japan turning corner in post-tsunami humanitarian relief

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2011 4:41 AM

By Chisa Fujioka and Jon Herskovitz

OFUNATO, Japan (Reuters) - Food aid is flowing, refugees are restoring daily routines, and even mobile banks are appearing in north Japan as the nation rallies around victims of the March 11 double disaster.

Nearly two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami plunged the Asian nation into its worst crisis since World War II, an increasingly thorough and successful humanitarian relief operation is replacing the scenes of suffering and devastation.

"Things are getting much better," says 57-year-old Tsutomu Hirayama at an evacuation center with his elderly mother, wife and three children in Ofunato city on the Pacific coast.

"For the first two or three days, we had only one rice ball and water for each meal. I thought, 'how long is this going to go on?' Now we get lots of food, it's almost like luxury, like better than what we used to have at home!"

In a typical story for Japan's 256,714 refugees, Hirayama lost his dry cleaning shop and home when the tsunami crashed in from the sea, obliterating whole towns in its wake.

Nearly 26,000 people died or are missing.

At Ofunato, restaurants have been donating food to refugees - sushi, grilled chicken and curry. The military has given them food packets of hot soup and rice. Clothes have poured in.

At the junior high school gymnasium where Hirayama is staying, the nearly 200 refugees are neatly cordoned off in blocks by cardboard about two feet high.

In keeping with Japan's highly ordered and disciplined society, shoes are neatly lined outside each living space, and people are arranged according to which ward they lived in.

Power and water services are back, meaning people can at last wash clothes. Yet because safety tests have not been run, they still drink water from tanks provided by the military.

Tasks are rotated according to three signs on the wall: "Preparing Food," "Collecting Water" and "Toilets and Trash."

In one corner, a makeshift library has been set up with children's books, and there is a desk for youngsters to study.

PHONES INSTALLED, GRAVES BUILT

Refugees fill out forms for temporary housing already being built by authorities in the world's third-richest economy.

Some of the evacuees say they have been told their new accommodation will be free of charge for two years, but they do not know when they can move.

Volunteers mill around the front, talking into megaphones with announcements. "There is bread left over from breakfast, so please come if you want more," one announces.

Used to their independence, some refugees are reluctant to fall on the charity of others.

"We have relatives offering to put us up, but people tell us it's uncomfortable," says Hirayama.

"It's fine for one or two days, but you are there with no money, depending on them for food and taking away their privacy. Some people have gone and come back to the center."

Whereas in the first days of the crisis, some of the elderly died from lack of medicine and blankets, there is now an abundance of medical aid.

At Otsuchi city, two medical teams are seemingly tripping over each other at a high school housing 600 evacuees.

At Kamaishi, trucks from the Lions Club charity unload clothes and supplies in a temporary warehouse already packed with goods.

Around the region, mobile phone operators have set up new transmission stations, and power company crews can be seen on rural roads fixing downed and damaged lines.

The Japan postal system has dispatched small orange trucks to help people withdraw money from their bank accounts. Many people in the outer areas such as Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have their savings in postal bank accounts.

"We just started here today and once word gets out about what we are doing, we expect to be quite busy," says Kazuo Nakamura, a local postmaster helping run the mobile service.

People can withdraw money from the vans called Posu-kuru, short for "come to the post office," even if they do not have ID. "If we can help we will. This is a rural area and people know each other here," Nakamura says.

The Sendai Bank has opened a mobile "bank in a bus" service for disaster victims. Like other banks, it lets customers withdraw money even without ID documents provided they can provide enough matching information.

Meanwhile, at the Jorakuji Temple in Kamaishi city, troops and construction workers are preparing land for the mass graves of hundreds of people killed in the tsunami.

Heavy machinery flattens land for the burials at a temple that was itself destroyed by the tidal wave.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa in Sumita; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by John Chalmers)