Japan: Preparing for future disasters

News and Press Release
Originally published
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Jason Smith, IFRC, in Tokyo

Being ready for a big disaster is always on the minds of those who work for the Red Cross in Japan, a country where small earthquakes occur almost daily and where risks of a major earthquake are high. To test their preparedness, the Japanese Red Cross Society recently spent three days on a large, complex disaster drill that involved more than 260 staff and volunteers from across the nation.

The drill was based on the assumption that an 8.0 magnitude quake had rocked the central part of Japan. Over the course of the following days, news emerged that 2,600 people had lost their lives, nearly 40,000 people had been injured, and more than 200,000 homes had been either heavily damaged or destroyed. Known in Japan as the "Tokai Quake", this scenario has an estimated 80 per cent likelihood of actually occurring in the next 30 year.

Testing capabilities

The drill was designed to test how well the Japanese Red Cross would be able to respond to a disaster of this magnitude. It also tested the National Society's ability to work with other agencies and its capacity to handle overwhelming demands from key stakeholders, including media and donors from around the world.

"Should a disaster like this one occur, it will take every resource of the Japanese Red Cross, from every corner of Japan, to meet people's needs," said Yasuyuki Tanigawa, Deputy Director General for Operations. "This kind of disaster response requires very thorough planning, and those plans need to be tested before the real event occurs. That's why these three days have been so important," he reflected at the end of the exercise.

Roles and impact

The essential roles for the Japanese Red Cross (JRCS) during large disasters are clearly defined: The Japanese Red Cross is charged with deploying medical response teams from its hospitals to care for the injured at the scene of disasters, it distributes pre-stocked disaster supplies such as bedding and sanitary items to those in need, it collects and distributes blood and it supports tracing activities for non-Japanese populations living in the country.

Working closely with its chapters in Shizuoka and other prefectures during the drill, the JRCS was successful in deploying more than 100 medical response teams who provided direct support to nearly 5,000 people across 34 cities and towns. Psychosocial support teams helped the JRCS to meet the emotional needs of nearly 500 traumatized people, and more than 250,000 relief items were delivered to affected people. The tracing service successfully handled nearly 600 requests for information on missing family members from around the world.

Observation and evaluation

Throughout the drill, observers from a third-party organization that specializes in monitoring disaster exercises carefully watched the participants and documented their actions. These observations will help the Japanese Red Cross to improve their plans and activities in the future.

Tadao Yamamoto manages the Crisis Management Department at an organization called Disaster Prevention Solutions. He was the chief evaluator of the drill. "We were watching for three key things as we observed the Japanese Red Cross," he explained. "First, we wanted to see how well members of the team actually implemented their own existing disaster response plans. Second, we watched the interactions between the strategic management group - charged with leading the organization's response - and the various units responsible for implementing disaster relief services. Finally, we observed how critical information was gathered and shared among and between those who needed it to be successful in their work."

Everyone at the Japanese Red Cross hopes that the skills they practiced during this catastrophic scenario will never be needed. However, from the energy, enthusiasm and focus that was demonstrated by those who participated, it is clear that they believe they will one day be called upon to provide essential humanitarian services following a major disaster. Their desire to be ready was clearly visible during every moment of the exercise.