Cover Story

Higher ground

"Higher ground" Continued...

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

Though supplies finally began accumulating in parts of Sendai more than a week after the quake, many outlying areas remained untouched. When Cummings-the son of American missionaries in Sendai-visited the coastal town of Ishinomaki, he described dire conditions. "We visited some places at night, and it's like visiting a horror house: No electricity, no water, no gas. . . . Dark, dark, creepy place," said Cummings in a phone interview from Sendai. "People are freezing and starving." Officials said nearly 80 percent of the town's homes washed away.

Authorities reported another crisis in disaster zones: large numbers of elderly residents displaced from their homes. Nearly one in four people in Japan is over 65, making the country one of the fastest-aging nations in the world. In hospitals and shelters, volunteer doctors reported that many elderly residents with chronic health problems lost their medication when fleeing their homes. Others languished in nursing homes: Forty-seven of the 113 residents at a nursing home in Kesennuma died during the tsunami. Eleven more died over the next two days because of the cold weather and lack of heat.

Others didn't survive the shelters: Chuei Inamura, a government official in the Fukushima Prefecture, said 14 elderly patients died in a shelter after being evacuated from a hospital near the nuclear power plant. "The condition at the gymnasium was horrible," said Inamura. "No running water, no medicine, and very, very little food. We simply did not have the means to provide good care."

In the coastal town of Ueda, missionary Matt Chase said his team delivered 1,000 liters of water and 500 rice balls after the tsunami. "There were many elderly people, so I ended up carrying lots of water directly to their homes and talking with them," Chase, who works with Mission to the World, wrote. "They bowed and thanked us endlessly when they heard we were from Chiba (4 hours away), and part of the Christian church there."

As the Japanese government struggled to meet the needs, aid groups, including churches and Christian organizations, began mobilizing: Organizations like World Vision and the Salvation Army deployed in-country staff to hard-hit areas, and mission agencies dispatched relief teams. But Japanese authorities limited outside help, preferring to work with local groups with local expertise.

One key local focus for relief efforts in Sendai is CRASH, Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. Volunteers staff the group and mobilize to respond when disasters strike. (The volunteers live in Japan and have other full-time positions like teachers, missionaries, and pastors.)

Volunteer staffer Aaron Knepp, a teacher at a Christian school in Tokyo, says that the group maintains a network of 1,400 churches across the country, and that volunteers are working with 40 churches in the disaster zone to deliver supplies to needy populations. Less than a week after the quake, the group established a base in Sendai.

That base has become a hub for other Christian groups and churches working in the area: Samaritan's Purse delivered 93 tons of supplies to the CRASH headquarters at a local school in Sendai. Other Christian organizations-including Churches Helping Churches, World Compassion Network, and Acorn International Ministries-sent staff to the CRASH base to assist. Feed the Hungry announced it would donate 500,000 meals for distribution through the site.

Even with help pouring into the base, Knepp said obtaining supplies in the local area was still a challenge. "Some of the people are living off just a few spoons of rice a day," he said a week after the quake. "We are doing our best, but supplies and fuel are at a premium."

Small groups and individuals seeking to deliver aid to the disaster zone confronted the challenges firsthand. Woody Lauer, a missionary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), has served in Japan with his family for 26 years. He lives in Numazu, a town some 75 miles south of Tokyo. After the quake, Lauer established contact with two OPC missionary families in the Sendai area (including Luke Cummings' parents), and organized a four-truck caravan to deliver supplies to churches and contacts in the area.

It wasn't an easy trip: The process involved getting permits from local authorities to travel on the highway into Sendai, obtaining supplies at a Tokyo homeless shelter and a Costco with limited quantities, driving all night to reach the Sendai area, delivering supplies to churches and local contacts, and driving all night again to return home.

Lauer said gasoline was available at stations along the highway, but once the group reached Sendai, supplies were scarce: Some customers parked cars in lines for as long as 20 hours, hoping to obtain fuel from stations that often ran out. "That means getting the supplies up there is relatively doable," he said. "But if you leave a large load for a church, they have to figure out a way to get it to the needy people using a minimum of gasoline."

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