Tom Schaafsma recently spent more than a week in Japan. He’s still struggling to find the words to describe what he saw there.
Schaafsma flew to Japan to lend a hand following the triple tragedy that recently struck Japan: a 9.0 earth-quake and an even more devastating tsunami, followed by radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
He said the combination of the earthquake, tsunami and the resulting crises at the Fukushima nuclear plant were “comparable to (Hurricane) Katrina, three 3-Mile Islands and the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, all at the same time.”
Schaafsma is one of 150 volunteers around the world trained in the delivery and logistics of “ShelterBoxes,” all-in-one temporary shelters for those who have lost their homes in a disaster.
There were plenty fitting that description in Japan.
Officials with the ShelterBox organization were on hand in Japan the day after the tsunami charged ashore. Eventually 2,200 of the ShelterBox kits were delivered and distributed.
While in Japan, Schaafsma traveled to Sendai, a city of approximately 1 million located near the epicenter of the earthquake.
Schaafsma said while much of the news coverage has focused on Sendai, including stark footage of the destruction of its airport, almost 200 miles of shoreline were struck by the tsunami, a stretch approximately equivalent to the Oregon coastline.
What he saw was “hard to describe,” he said.
Though there were tsunami walls virtually the entire length of the affected area, they were ineffectual against the massive tsunami, with the sea pouring over the wall in some places and in others simply tearing it to pieces.
Everything along the shoreline, Schaafsma said, from “sea level up to 50 to 100 feet, and up to 7 kilometers inland, was destroyed. Not damaged. Destroyed.”
Schaafsma said the scene on the ground was much different from what he found when he traveled to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that essentially leveled Port-au-Prince.
“In Haiti, everything remained in place,” he said. “Collapsed, but in place. Japan was put through a blender.”
Schaafsma said there were other striking distinctions between the disaster in Japan and those he has witnessed in other places.
“Japan was unique,” he said. “Most of the time we’re in Third World countries where the response of the government is slow — if there is one.”
He said in Japan, virtually every displaced person was housed in a shelter within three days. That included the use of many school gymnasiums.
Schaafsma said the emergency centers were models of decorum. “The Japanese are probably the most civil, self-controlled people I’ve ever seen,” he said. He noted that even in the midst of the chaos following the tsunami, “not even vending machines were looted.” Inside the emergency shelters, there was “no bickering, no loud voices.”
Because so many of the people were utilizing the public accommodations, there was little call for the tents as homes. Schaafsma noted that given the choice of living in a tent in the snow or living in a heated gymnasium, “the choice was pretty simple.”
Instead the tents were used to provide privacy to families or to serve more utilitarian uses such as changing rooms and nursing stations.
Schaafsma said he was struck by the fact that he saw no other nongovernmental organizations in Japan helping in the recovery. “I think they all presumed the Japanese were capable of managing it,” he said. “They are, but the combination (of disasters) is stressing their capabilities to the limit.”
Schaafsma said the economic and emotional devastation will take years of recovery.
One big question remains, Schaafsma said. What should be done with the seashore land now that the waters have receded?
“Virtually all had tsunami walls and virtually all of it was destroyed,” Schaafsma noted.