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Japan’s disaster survivors cope with cold, illness, fuel shortages and personal loss

By Patrick Fuller

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 — Shaken by its worst disaster in recent memory, Japan is battling to restore the hope for a shocked and vulnerable population, including hundreds of thousands crowded into evacuation centers, and slowly get back on its feet despite daunting obstacles. 

In many respects, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast is rapidly becoming a disaster associated with the elderly. The three evacuation centers in the shattered town of Otsuchi are filled with the old and ill. Many are too tired or too sick to do little but lie on mattresses on the floor, swathed in blankets.

The weather is taking a heavy toll on the health of the survivors in evacuation centers, many of whom are elderly. Japanese Red Cross Society doctors say there has been an increase in cases of influenza and some diarrheal diseases.

Takanori Watanabe, a Red Cross doctor from Himeji, in western Japan, arrived in Otsuchi as part of a 12-person mobile medical team which runs daily clinics around the evacuation centers.

Friday the team was based in the infirmary of Otsuchi High School, where about 700 people filled the floor space of the school’s gymnasium. The infirmary’s only two beds are being used by an elderly woman who is barely conscious and an old man attached to an I/V drip who is badly dehydrated. Most of the patients coming to the clinic are elderly and many have lost their daily medication in the disaster.

“There are a lot of people with chronic conditions and today, it’s cold so some people have fallen ill,” Dr. Watanabe said. “We’ve had a bad stomach virus going around so a lot of people are getting diarrhea and becoming dehydrated. The Red Cross teams have a limited variety of medicine and since supplies are limited patients are getting just three-day’s supply.’

Another member of Dr. Watanabe’s team, who is trained in emotional counseling, sits in the corner, quietly comforting a teenage girl who has her head in her hands and is sobbing. Everyone in Otsuchi has lost someone. A relative, a friend or a neighbor – the entire town has been affected. Helping people to overcome trauma is a major issue and teams of Japanese Red Cross Society counselors are being deployed to combat stress-related illnesses that are beginning to emerge.

Certainly, life in the evacuation centers isn’t easy for the young either. Ayumi Yamazaki, 21, sits in the large gymnasium with her older sister, niece, mother and one-and-a-half year-old daughter, Yuwa. Her house was destroyed in the tsunami. She just managed to escape, first to a nearby hill, but when the churning mass of debris brought in by the tsunami caught fire, she was forced further up the mountain.

“We get one bowl of soup or one piece of bread to share among three people,” she said. “It’s cold here, and these two (pointing to her daughter and niece) caught a cold but just now we got some medicine from the Red Cross.”

At the Otsuchi municipal council, Koso Hirano, has a massive job on his hands. By default, he assumed control of the council when the Mayor and seven other council members died when the tsunami came in.

“We always thought we were well prepared,” he said. “We built six meter (20 feet) barrages and dykes but the wave was ten meters (33 feet) high and people barely had twenty minutes to escape”, said Hirano whose main task now is ensuring that evacuees have sufficient food and water supplies.

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