The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a critical examination of how communities and countries prepare for multiple, overlapping crises. Here are a few lessons the Japanese Red Cross Society learned after the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown ten years ago this month.
It’s been ten years since a magnitude 9 earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that killed 18,000 of people, wiped out whole coastal towns and caused a serious nuclear accident in the Fukushima prefecture that resulted in more than 100,000 people being evacuated from their homes.
Today, there are some signs of progress toward normalcy. The decontamination of land has been completed in most of the affected areas while atmospheric radiation levels are now the same as most major cities in the world.
But for those who lived through the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, life may never be the same. Loved ones gone. Neighborhoods leveled. In the area impacted by radiation, some 337 square kilometers are still deemed a “difficult-to-return zone”, meaning that more than 37,000 people are still not able to return to their homes.
Even for those who came from other parts of Japan to help, the event was traumatic, in large part because no one, including the Japanese Red Cross Society, had ever before dealt with simultaneous major crises of this scale: one that not only wiped entire towns out to sea but then made rescue efforts extremely risky due to potential radiation poisoning.
Red Cross nurse Ayumi Watanabe recalls how her team was providing medical help to weary and frightened people at a gymnasium in the town of Soma.
“The nuclear power plant had exploded and we had no choice but to leave. We heard blaming words from the evacuees like, ‘You are abandoning us, aren’t you?’ With mixed feelings of guilt and a sense of fear of the radiation, we forced ourselves to move to Kawamata. My heart was nearly broken with sorrow.”
While the Japanese Red Cross Society has long experience providing medical treatments for radiation poisoning at certain hospitals it manages (due to legacy of treating survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts), the National Society was not ready to deal with such widespread contamination from radioactive materials.
In many parts of the world, a similar situation is unfolding with Covid-19, as health systems worked feverishly to adapt while also keeping healthcare workers as safe as possible. With Covid-19, most communities had some time to prepare for the virus’ arrival. But it’s still a tremendous challenge when a pandemic, toxic agent or radioactive contaminant complicates emergency efforts.
Lesson of Fukushima: get prepared now
This is why for many at the Japanese Red Cross Society, the tenth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami is a critical time to stress the importance of preparing for just these sort of overlapping crises.
The arrival of Covid-19 has only heightened that awareness. In places where communities are recovering from the impact of storms, the pandemic has created enormous new complications, while places already struggling with Covid-19 have found themselves then confronting the arrival of a hurricane or other large-scale crisis.
Japan, for example, was still recovering from Typhoon Hagibis in 2019 when Covid-19 came along, complicating recovery efforts and causing still more economic and social pain.
This is one reason that Masakazu Karube, director general of the Disaster Management and Social Welfare Department in the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS), says it’s so critical that countries share what they know and come together to prepare response plans — particularly for complex disasters that involve technological hazards such as radioactive, biological or toxic materials.
“What happened in Fukushima was a triple disaster of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear accident,” he says. “It is of vital importance to share what we have learnt with the world. Nuclear power plant accidents do not respect borders and cannot be resolved by the country of origin alone.”
For the Japanese Red Cross Society, it was a painful lesson. In the days following this triple disaster, JRCS relief teams found themselves in a very complicated situation due to lack of knowledge about radiation, deficiency of radiation protective equipment and materials such as devices for measuring radiation levels, and lack of standards for activities in a radiation environment.
“At that time, the JRCS had no clear protocols to secure the safety of the relief team members while conducting relief activities in a radiation environment. Also, the fears and anxieties due to radiation did not allow the teams to conduct enough relief activities in Fukushima in that moment.”
The cataclysmic scale of the disaster also raised awareness about the need to respond to the mental health of the people affected. For that reason, JRCS positioned psychosocial support as one of the main relief activities.
“It is of vital importance to share what we have learnt with the world. Nuclear power plant accidents do not respect borders and cannot be resolved by the country of origin alone.”
Masakazu Karube, director general, Disaster Management and Social Welfare Department, Japanese Red Cross Society
Low frequency, high impact
Getting the response right is particularly critical because more earthquakes are predicted to occur in the near future, while climate change has made typhoons and river floods more intense in the past few years. As an example, in February, an aftershock of the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, but fortunately had no impact on nuclear facilities.
“As the nuclear accident is often called ‘low-frequency but high-impact disaster’, the impact is very high once it happens,” says Karube. “We do not know when it will happen again, but now we are more prepared. It is the responsibility of the state hosting nuclear power plants to be prepared for any contingency, for the sake of not only their own citizens but also the surrounding countries and beyond.”
This is one reason the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is also pushing for greater investment in multi-disaster preparedness. Money spent in planning is well spent not only because of the human lives saved, but also because it lessens the damage and hastens both social and economic recovery.
For its part, the JRCS has been preparing for possible future nuclear emergencies by strengthening its own capacity to respond to a nuclear emergency, developing clear safety and technical standards, training staff, and collecting and disseminating information on nuclear emergencies (see more details below).
As Japanese Red Cross Society nurse Ayumi Watanabe sharing and learning from the experience will be one way to make something positive come from that horrifying day. “I remember at the evacuation center in Fukushima there were countless occasions that I was told, ‘Thank you for your effort for taking care of us’ … Now I feel that I should have been the one to thank them, and here I am with such a valuable experience. I really believe now that there were not only bad things [from this tragedy], but some good.”
Get ready, get prepared
What can your Red Cross Red Crescent National Society can do to be prepared for a overlapping, technological disaster? Here are six key steps recommended by the Japanese Red Cross Society and other experts.
- Be ready to coordinate internationally. Nuclear accidents don’t respect borders, so the response to a nuclear power plant accident will always be done in an international context. National Societies can help start or further the discussion in terms what needs to be done before, during and after any potential accident.
- Make sure laws are in place to enable your National Society to act. The role played by National Societies in relation to nuclear accident preparedness and response should be clarified, by legislation or other means, in order to ensure clear lines of responsibility and protocols.
- Ensure the safety of National Society responders by setting clear, safe operating standards. The JRCS has clearly defined its protocols for responding to nuclear accidents. For example, JRCS relief teams conduct relief activities outside “restricted areas” designated by the national and local governments, and a cumulative radiation dose limit for each relief team member during an activity period is set at 1mSv or less (Sv is the unit that measures radiation dose).
- Strengthen your structure for nuclear emergency response. From the physicians and radiological technologists belonging to the JRCS’s hospitals, the National Society has appointed Nuclear Emergency Medical Care Advisors to counsel both headquarters and relevant chapters on how to guarantee the safety of first responders in case a nuclear emergency occurs.
- Educate and train. Education and training of staff is essential. The JRCS organizes seminars and training sessions, using its Manual for Relief Activities under Nuclear Disasters and Nuclear Disaster Guidelines as well as IFRC’s Nuclear and Radiological Emergency Guidelines and online learnings such as Public Health: Nuclear Emergency Preparedness” through IFRC Learning Platform.
- Do your homework and spread the word. It’s critical to share information, experiences and lessons learnt during the Fukushima and other nuclear accidents. This is one reason the JRCS launched the Digital Archives in October 2013 for fulfilling the purpose of disseminating information. That material is now available here and through the Web Archiving Project “WARP”, as well as through the Global Disaster Preparedness Center’s website.