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Higher ground

Japan | Perhaps the best-prepared nation on earth, Japan struggles to deliver on relief to quake survivors-up to half a million displaced-and faith-based groups are finding ways to step into the gaps

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

Less than 48 hours after a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami decimated Japan's northeastern coastline, Luke Cummings managed a feat that many relief workers initially struggled to accomplish: He rushed headlong into the devastation.

The 25-year-old American-who grew up in a missionary family in Japan-drove a van from his home in Tokyo to the hard-hit Sendai region, where his parents live and work, to deliver food and supplies to reeling communities. Four days later, Cummings offered a chilling firsthand account of the overwhelming devastation in coastal towns: "It's as if the atomic bomb went off."

That's a dire description for a country enduring its worst disaster since a pair of atomic bombs obliterated Japanese cities during World War II. Indeed, though deadlier natural disasters have gripped Japan, like the 7.9-magnitude Kanto earthquake that killed 143,000 in 1923, the March 11 disaster reached record-breaking proportions, even before inducing a nuclear crisis.

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The 9.0-magnitude earthquake was the most powerful quake ever recorded in Japan and the fifth-strongest quake worldwide since 1900. The force of the quake moved the island of Hoshnu (the largest in Japan) eight feet to the east, and sped up the Earth's rotation by 1.6 microseconds, according to NASA. The ensuing tsunami produced 30-foot walls of water that barreled over concrete barriers and swept away whole towns: homes, cars, buildings, and people.

While images of torrential waves flattening trees and overturning villages seemed surreal seen from the distance of YouTube and news broadcasts, the destruction was excruciatingly real: Authorities estimated the death toll would reach 18,000. With whole communities lost, that toll could grow higher. Another 450,000 residents were displaced: Most reported homes lost or severely damaged, but as many as 70,000 evacuated a nuclear reactor zone enduring its own crisis (see sidebar below).

Meanwhile, Japanese authorities struggled to deliver crucial relief to hundreds of thousands in hard-hit areas without running water or electricity. Acute shortages of supplies and fuel struck as far south as Tokyo and beyond.

The unfolding disaster was particularly striking for a country considered the world's best-prepared for earthquakes. The island nation in the so-called Ring of Fire-an arc of volcanic and earthquake zones in the Pacific where some 90 percent of the world's earthquakes occur-maintains high standards for quake-ready structures and an advanced earthquake warning system. Japanese rescue and relief workers cultivate meticulous disaster-response plans.

But the best-laid plans couldn't prepare for a trio of simultaneous disasters: quake, tsunami, and a nuclear power plant in meltdown. That left gaps the government couldn't fill, and opened opportunities for select aid groups and individuals to help with needs that will last far beyond the initial disaster. The World Bank estimated that the disaster caused $235 billion in damages, and that reconstruction may take five years. (The country's 1995 Kobe earthquake killed 6,000 victims and left $100 billion in damages.)

World Bank officials say the Japanese economy will likely rebound with reconstruction efforts. Japan is the richest nation in Asia but is saddled with massive debt. And a global network of nations, including the United States, is dependent on Japan for its high output of technological products and automobiles.

But the most acute needs remained humanitarian, and one of the biggest sources of help came from one of the nation's smallest minorities: Christians working through churches to deliver aid and hope to a nation confronting profound needs-both physical and spiritual.

Japanese Emperor Akihito underscored the gravity of the disaster by doing something he'd never done before: appearing on television. Akihito's appearance marked the first time a Japanese emperor has directly addressed the nation via television. Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the disaster "Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago."

Even the country's well-prepared Japanese Red Cross was stricken: Tadateru Konoe, the organization's president, told Reuters that the devastation reminded him of Osaka and Tokyo after World War II. "This is a complete disaster," he said. "In my long career in the Red Cross, this is the worst I have ever seen."

The Japanese Red Cross dispatched dozens of medical teams and helped coordinate many of the 2,300 shelters for evacuees, while the government deployed 100,000 troops to the disaster zone. But the scale of the need was overwhelming. Two days after the quake, Hajime Sato, a government official in the hard-hit Iwate Prefecture, said supplies were running short, despite pleas to Japanese authorities. "People are surviving on little food and water," he said. "Things are just not coming."

The U.S. military assigned over 4,000 troops based in Japan to assist with aid efforts, and the U.S. Navy delivered more than 80 tons of supplies to affected areas. U.S. commanders also assigned military personnel to monitor the crisis at the Fukushima plant.

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