Japan Earthquake and Tsunami situation summary - 3

Life in Shelters and Isolated Communities

As of today, there are still 170,000 people living in shelters, and countless more in communities that escaped the tsunamis or radiation contamination, but still in physically damaged areas within Tohoku.
Right after the earthquakes and tsunamis, people spent the night in temples, government offices, etc., but eventually they were received at designated shelters, which, in many cases were school buildings and gymnasiums, housing anywhere from 50 to 1,000 evacuees. Some simple provisions requiring only small added costs can make them more functional and comfortable for emergency uses.
1) Heat:
Because the shelters are not built for residential use, heat source is often inadequate or non-existent. Compounded with the fuel distribution blockage, many shelters lack heat in the sub-zero weather. There was a story of a bio-fuel venture company offering a special boiler, which provides hot water that may be circulated through hoses placed around the main space. It is a quick make-shift radiant heating solution, but of course it requires a boiler, hoses, and fuel.
For a future school gymnasium, it will make sense to incorporate such heating hoses (tubes under floor) and good insulation all around the building envelope so that it can reduce the suffering of people when and if it is used as a shelter for a minimal increase of the initial construction cost.
2) Sanitation
The shelter is only a shelter, barely better than sleeping outdoors. The space inside tends to be cold, and becomes crowded with people whose hygiene is not necessarily at the desirable level. There is a tendency to see cases of influenza spreading fast among the evacuees. Many wear a surgical mask, but it can prevent the germs flying around only so much.
Toilets are always a big problem. Those make-shift shelters do not usually have much sewerage capacity. Without running water supply and/or damaged sewer lines, they quickly overflow. People try digging holes in the ground outside, but of course they are not so comfortable, often soiled, smelly, and cold. As a result, people tend to take less liquid in an attempt to reduce the number of times they have to go to the bathroom, which can cause medical complications including what is so called the economy class syndrome.
Again, future gymnasiums and school buildings and public parks should have extra toilet capacity. Systems that are slowly adopted in public facilities include one where holes in the ground, at normal times concealed with steel plates flush on the ground level, are connected directly to sewer lines. A nearby storage shack would have quick-and-easy tents to provide privacy over each of them.
Gray water systems can provide for flushing toilets, shower/bathing possibility, and above-mentioned radiant heating systems, when the water supply lines are severed. They are a good investment in normal times, and can be precious resources in emergency, offering self-sustained water usage.
One thing to remember is that there is always a need for handicap accessible toilets. In TV news pictures I saw many “comfort castles” or portable toilets deployed to evacuation shelters. But none were accessible. Accessible toilets were only recently incorporated in the Building Code in Japan; I suppose there are very few accessible portable toilets here.
3) Bedding
The gymnasium floor is hard and cold with little insulation. In an emergency like this time when people barely escaped the onslaught of tsunamis, they have literally have nothing with them. Minimum bedding must be provided for somehow. Even a thin sleeping mat for camping would help isolating the cold coming up from the floor. Sleeping bags can be added to the list of relief supplies to be stored by municipalities. Blankets can be of very light weight, high-tech material that we see in sporting events. Is there any way of incorporating light-weight insulating materials with the finishes of walls and/or ceilings in these public buildings so that they can be dismantled and placed on the floor?
As the magnitude of devastation goes up, the length of stay in these shelters inevitably becomes longer. The stress of spending two, or three, or four weeks in a crowded room and sleeping on hard floor can weaken the already weak. When we plan for a shelter, we tend to think about the immediate relieve of water and food; but equally important is the consideration for how to sustain the lives of those who survived for some prolonged period of time, as the temporary housing projects will take time (6-12 months) to accommodate everybody.
4) Privacy
Tens and hundreds of people cramped into a large space would inevitably suffer from a lack of privacy. This condition would exasperate the stress level of those who are already experiencing the sense of loss, displacement, and fear of uncertainties.
In some cases, elderly with mobility impairment and/or excretory difficulty would hesitate to move into a shelter lest their bodily odor might bother others or their conditions in general would make themselves “unpresentable” to strangers. So would parents of children with mental problems, who might panic in an unfamiliar environment and cry or shriek or run around, etc.
Shigeru Ban has proposed a light-weight system of paper tubes and fabric to erect temporary partitions. This system would work well under certain circumstances. Is there not something that can be incorporated into the building itself that would help? Maybe something as simple as extra rope rings along the upper portion of walls of such spaces, where ropes can be tied to hang whatever fabric or panels people can find when the time comes? Architects have to use their imagination.
5) Governance
In many shelters in Tohoku, it is reported that spontaneous, self-governing bodies have been established. This reminds me of the Chilean minors trapped underground for so many days. There would be rules all are expected to abide by, routines and responsibilities assigned to sub-groups, such as cooking, distribution of rationed supplies, overseeing small children in the designated play areas, tending whatever few kerosene heaters they have, cleaning toilets, and so on. In large shelters, you may find clinics with doctors and nurses, and mental care therapists, who themselves are evacuees. Sometimes city hall employees take up a role, but they say it is better to leave matters to the hands of residents because in any given shelter, the evacuees are likely from the same or nearby neighborhoods and know each other. There are often leadership figures and the order is rather naturally restored.
6) Information
Many evacuees are separated from their family members and still do not know if they are safe. Cell phones and land line phone system were restored only sporadically after a week or so. Those who cannot get reconnected are still searching with a hope that their loved ones are alive in a different shelter or hospitalized somewhere. At the same time, some municipalities provide daily bus rides to the morgues so one can visit the dead in order to identify them.
Many evacuees do not have access to TV or internet. So they cannot watch the non-stop coverage of TV and news media. Especially in Fukushima, the nuclear plant accident followed the earthquakes, but the evacuees are not well informed of the ever changing situation there.
Right after March 11th, with all the phone systems out, internet was the only means of communication. Twitter and Facebook are said to have been very useful to spread real-life information to cell phones. However, there are many who do not use such systems, and after the cell phone batteries die, the information stops flowing, too.
Coastal communities typically have a loud-speaker communication system installed. But it was knocked down by the earthquake or tsunami. It is therefore desirable to come up with a stable public information infrastructure taking advantage of today’s technology.
7) Food Supply and Preparation
Those who escaped the tsunamis in stranded buildings and rooftops literally had to wait for rescue for a whole day, if not longer, without food or water. Even after having been admitted to the shelters, the delivery of rations was delayed so that the conditions did not improve for more than a few days. People shared what little food they had, and eventually relief supplies started to arrive.
Most shelters lack cooking facilities. Even if people had access to a kitchen, there may not be power or gas available. Therefore in early days, food items that can be served without any preparation were important.
As soon as the cooking becomes possible, Japanese shelters tend to serve rice balls and miso soup. This would help a great majority of evacuees, but there was a story of children with food allergy. Those special needs people have to be accounted for by the community and/or local government.
8) Other Supplies
After the initial rescue efforts are over, the reality of everyday life comes back. People who have food allergy or rely on daily doses of medications have lost their stock in the confusion. Local hospitals would run out of their stock very quickly without replenishment. For people with such needs, the ordeal in shelters becomes much harder than others. Those who require regular dialysis procedures had to be evacuated to hospitals in different parts of the country, which worked this time, only thanks to a network of hospitals established by a handful of private doctors who had prepared procedures for just such situations. Babies and pregnant women have their own needs, so do people with handicap in their mobility or intellectual capabilities. This reminds me of the fact that we all depend on the modern day networks of everything from food to medication to information to energy sources to banking to municipal services to everything else. Disasters hit not when everybody is able to cope with the ensuing hardships; the preparation must be planned and designed to address needs of people with special needs while trying to help the maximum possible number of general public.
Some groups had to move several times in the past two weeks. From the administrative point of view, it makes sense to consolidate smaller shelters so that the delivery routes can be rationalized, and fewer locations would have to be taken care of. Authorities say that they learned after the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 that it would be better to relocate, if necessary, neighborhood groups together so that evacuees would maintain the community bonds, leading to a better chance of supporting each other in the hardships they are to experience.
Regional governments have started the construction of temporary housing. However, some estimate says they will need 20,000 units. So far only a few thousands have been planned or started.
Some tragic issues;
1) There are many children whose lives were saved because they were still in school, which tends to be built on a higher ground behind the coastal fishing communities. Many, however, lost their parents. Children as young as 8 years old are wondering through the destruction of the city looking for their parents and siblings. If they are taken in by their relatives, they are lucky. In many cases, the whole clan perished in the sweeping force of tsunamis. Who will care for them as time goes on? Can governments establish any effective system to support them till they grow up? It is truly heart-wrenching.
2) There have already been close to 100 deaths of elderly after they had been admitted to shelters because of the cold, lack of medicine or medical equipment, shock of changing environment, or loss of care-giver in the family, etc. In some shelters, they have seen two to three such deaths per day for the past weeks. The dead are placed in a separate room because municipal cremation facilities are either destroyed or running at full capacity, and sometimes because their families cannot be found.
Community Based Migration;
A few communities literally lost their towns, town halls, and town hall employees. Whoever is remaining decided to move together to a shelter in a distant location. For example, the residents of the town of Otsuchi have been accepted to Saitama Arena, a multipurpose sports stadium only half hour north of Tokyo with a courtesy of Prefecture of Saitama. The town hall also moved here, and opened the town councilors’’ meeting yesterday. It is unprecedented, but today we all have to improvise. Communities especially close to the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plants are planning for mass migration, at least for a few years, before their home towns become habitable again.
However, while the residents are in a new community, they would have to find work. Once they are successful in starting new lives, they will have less reason to go back. Either way, their lives are greatly affected.
Many prefectures and municipalities in the western Japan have offered acceptance with provisions for travelling, housing rent waiver, and even start-up money. But emotionally, those who were affected still hesitate, naturally.

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