Japan: Facing up to the challenges of life in a tsunami evacuation centre

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The care home shook savagely as the fishing town of Kesennuma felt the force of a magnitude-nine earthquake. It swayed – as it should – but built to Japan’s strict construction standards, sustained no serious damage.

On the ground floor, 82-year-old Masa Matsuda sat in her wheelchair and waited for the shaking to stop. She frowned. She had been through many earthquakes, but nothing like the one of 11 March. It had even interrupted her afternoon nap.

What happened next occurred so fast she was on the first floor before she knew it. Nurses were running and shouting, pushing wheelchairs towards the stairs and then carrying them up, with their astonished occupants still sitting in them.

This action had been caused by a tsunami warning. A fire brigade car touring the streets had announced the imminent landfall of a massive wave. The care home was close to the waterfront and owner Imawashiro Morimitsu shouted to his staff to move everybody upstairs. The warning was for a six-metre wave and he figured up there, they would be above the high water mark. When the tsunami crashed through the first-storey walls he knew there was no escape.

Wheelchairs began to be swept away, and carers, struggling themselves in swirling, chest-high water, fought to keep the heads of the elderly above it. They lifted up their chairs as high as they could but could not prevent disaster. Masa was one of 86 saved but 47 others perished that day.

Today, Masa lives in a classroom of an elementary school that serves as an evacuation centre. Five other survivors are with her, the rest are sheltered in a number of other places. By day she rests, and plays games with her companions and carers to keep her spirits up. At night she sleeps on the classroom floor. Meeting her, you would probably not guess what she has been through; how she almost died up to her neck in water, how a second wave came, and how they fled to the roof in a snowstorm and huddled in the cold night air. You could not imagine how her ordeal continued even after their rescue, in a freezing school gym where, over two days, two more of her companions died.

It doesn’t show because she does not want it to. She stays strong because that is how she wants to be remembered.

But Masa needs help. She needs a place in a care home, she needs support to cope with the massive change in her life, she needs a comfortable bed, and she needs more nutritious meals. Her case is one of many causing widespread concern as new needs surface daily among Japan’s elderly tsunami survivors.

Toru Chiba, 51, a volunteer of the Japanese Red Cross Society, was one of the staff at the care home. He fears that Masa will have to stay in one of the stricken town’s shelters for the foreseeable future. For now, however, it may be her best option because it provides a roof over her head and three meals a day, and she will be visited by the Red Cross mobile medical teams that continue to work throughout the affected regions. It isn’t what she needs, it isn’t enough, but right now he cannot see a better option. “It bothers me,” he says. “When I look at Masa and the others I can see their energy waning, and there is a great deal of stress. That will not improve while they stay in one of the centres.”

Kesennuma, a leading fishing port famous for tuna and shark fin, was one of the towns worst hit by the 11 March disaster. The earthquake and tsunami were followed by fire after an oil tanker exploded.

Surveying the debris of the waterfront, Chiba reveals his wider concerns for the elderly. The need, he says, is not just in evacuation centres but also among those who are left isolated. With the state health system disrupted, and local shops and amenities closed or damaged, conditions are distressing for many people confined to homes that survived the disaster.

But there he can do something. Helped by a volunteer team from Nara, he has compiled a register of lonely and needy elderly people. What remains of municipal records – much was washed away by the tsunami – has also been investigated, and a Red Cross visiting service is being established. People may need food or medicine, he says. They may need help in accessing services or simply to talk about what happened to them. “Loneliness itself can be very stressful. We must break down the isolation.”