Red Cross marks six months of recovery in Japan

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By Francis Markus in Ishinomaki, Japan

In the six months since the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, donations to the Canadian Red Cross have helped the Japanese Red Cross meet the emergency and longer-term needs of families living in evacuation centers and temporary housing.

Providing emotional support and counseling to disaster survivors is an integral component of Japanese Red Cross recovery services. Amid a maze of waist-high cardboard partitions that provide the only privacy people have in the Ishinomaki evacuation center, two Red Cross psychosocial nurses sit cross-legged on floor mats, each talking quietly to a disaster survivor.

“How are you sleeping?” one of them asks a middle-aged woman. The other nurse is listening attentively to an elderly survivor, as she uses an old-fashioned blood pressure cuff to take her blood pressure.

“Although there are electronic blood pressure machines in the evacuation centers, elderly people always ask us to take their blood pressure manually,” says Yuko Mitsuhata, who’s been in the Japanese Red Cross for more than 30 years and understands these subtle requests for human contact.

A native of the western city of Okayama, she played an important role in the operation to support survivors after the 1995 earthquake in the nearby city of Kobe.

“In those days, people didn’t have a concept of psychosocial support, and everything was about relief and medical care,” Mitsuhata said. “But this time around, things changed. We were able to get straight down to talking to survivors.”

Fifteen specialized psychosocial teams, including nurses like Mitsuhata, were deployed in the affected areas of Miyagi and Iwate following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March. To date, 586 trained teams have provided counseling and emotional support to 13,987 people who lost family members or experienced trauma following the disaster.

Mitsuhata’s colleague, Eri Naito, has begun to see signs of recovery during her conversations with survivors.

“People have stopped talking as much about the shock and trauma of the disaster and now share more about the issues surrounding the move to temporary housing,” she said.  “However, when there was a big aftershock a few days ago, we could see that some people were still very scared. Some of them even got physically sick.”

But overall, she said people are much more focused on the future than on the past.

With several thousand people still in evacuation shelters, the work of Red Cross psychosocial teams continues. Once survivors move evacuation centers into temporary homes, the Red Cross will continue activities through regular events for children, parents and the elderly.