Q&A: Mercy Corps aid worker shares observations from trip to Japan
Joy Portella, the Seattle-based communications director for Mercy Corps who has been in Japan since March 22, talks about the current situation in some of the hardest-hit areas in the country.
Joy Portella, the Seattle-based communications director for Mercy Corps, has been in Japan since March 22. She spent the last four days in hard-hit communities, including Kesennuma on the northeast coast of the island of Honshu. Mercy Corps has about a half dozen staffers in Japan and is working on aid efforts with its Japanese partner, Peace Winds.
In a Monday afternoon telephone interview with Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, she offered these observations of the situation:
Q: Is relief aid making it through to people in the areas you visited?
A: It's there. But even though they have basic needs — food, water and medical supplies — fuel is really a big concern. It snows almost every day, and there is no electricity in most of these areas, so people are relying on kerosene. There are mile-long gas lines. Not just on the coast but inland. We spent a day trucking kerosene and offloading it at shelters.
Q: How did you find people in the shelters?
A: I met two elderly women who were in their 80s and had lived next to each other for 33 years. And now they were in the shelter, the main auditorium of a school that housed 200 people. They lived in 8-foot-by-6-foot cardboard partitions and had their first shower in two weeks.
I talked to one woman and she said, "I know all these people. We are really stronger because we are here together."
Q: What about businesses?
A: Some are totally destroyed. Some are being cleaned up. We are seeing businesses reopen and come back to life. We went to a 7-Eleven and talked to their franchise owner. He didn't have any refrigeration equipment or electricity. But he had a bunch of customers and had been open for several days, and was ecstatic that he was open. There was this amazing resilience.
Q: How far were you from the Fukushima nuclear-plant complex and were people concerned about radiation?
A: We were about 200 kilometers north. In Tokyo, there is a lot of concern about radiation, particularly with the water supply. But in the areas that are damaged, there are much more immediate concerns as in "I'm homeless, I'm living in a shelter and I have no idea what I'm going to do."
Q: Kesennuma is a town of about 70,000 that depends on fishing. How bad was the devastation?
A: The port is really the economic heart of the city. In the port area and nearby, there is total destruction for a mile or more. Wherever the water hit.
Q: What about transportation links?
A: You can take a direct route to the area. It probably takes six or seven hours (from Toyko) and the road is fine. But it skirts along the (exclusion zone) of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The Japanese say the road is OK but I didn't personally take that road.
Q: What aid efforts will Mercy Corps and its partner be involved with in Japan?
A: We are going to do post-trauma work with kids, and we are looking at how to make that really culturally appropriate ... We are also going to get involved in the local economy. We are probably going to distribute vouchers that people can use to get into the stores as they reopen and buy goods, and pump up the local economy. We are going to look at small businesses that don't have insurance and don't have access to government funding, and may need support.
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