Houses burning in Natori City, northeast Japan, after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
By David Tereshchuk *
March 11, 2014—Today marks a milestone for Japan. It is a full three years now since the triple disaster –earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown—hit the country so devastatingly in 2011.
From the very beginning of aid efforts, UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has been deeply involved in a range of disaster response, relief, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts. Even though, as UMCOR’s deputy general secretary, the Rev. Dr. J. Denise Honeycutt, points out, “Japan is not a country where we have a large United Methodist presence,” UMCOR has nevertheless made a powerful contribution, through working with existing and newly formed partnerships.
From United Methodists and others of goodwill, UMCOR raised donations in response to the catastrophe at the extraordinary level of more than $12 million. As the task of addressing survivors’ most immediate needs transitioned over time into more long-term efforts, UMCOR took a historic decision. It issued a request for proposals (RFP) which “would take the recovery and rehabilitation in Japan to the next level,” says the Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for International Disaster Response.
As a result, in October 2013, the remaining funds, totaling $6 million, were approved to be disbursed in grants to partner organizations. These grants were mainly aimed at addressing psychosocial needs of survivors over the next three years.
These largely “hidden wounds,” as they are often described, which were inflicted on many Japanese citizens, and most terribly on those living near the explosions and meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, present some of the biggest challenges to the nation’s full recovery from the disaster. The long-term damage will clearly be complicated and multifaceted, as well as lasting—possibly through generations to come.
As Amick points out, “One of the lessons learned from this endeavor is that even developed countries like Japan can benefit from international assistance when disasters are complex as well as large in magnitude.” In this case, for the people of Fukushima especially, the disaster was far from ended when the storm blew over. “The risks of radiation exposure have meant anxiety about unpredictable maladies occurring among entire communities,” says Amick, “and families are left living in fear and worry about their future.”
Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR’s associate general secretary for International Development, highlighted the practical ways UMCOR and partners have worked to combat such psychosocial problems. “We have tried to counter the misinformation about radiation issues that can spread so easily,” she says, “and we’ve made radiation-detecting equipment available so people can check on the status of their food and of their own bodies too.”
Little-Noticed Niches of Need
Another specific role that UMCOR has fulfilled in its partnership work has been to direct help towards segments of society that might otherwise be marginalized. Crutchfield says, “We have been able to bring added value by often working with non-traditional groups that can be creative and original in filling overlooked niches of need and catching people who might otherwise fall through the cracks of official provision.”
As UMCOR reviews its entire three years of involvement, Assistant General Secretary Amick underscores the lessons for future work.
“It is very likely,” he says, “that UMCOR and other disaster-response agencies will increasingly be faced with natural disasters that result in dangerous disturbance of radioactive materials and other man-made toxins. So, forward-looking disaster action plans will require increased attention to the physical and emotional ramifications of toxic exposure, for survivors and responders alike.”
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*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.