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.
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.
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."
Other shortages were especially painful for grieving quake victims: Sato, the government official in the Iwate Prefecture, said the region was running out of body bags and coffins for the overwhelming number of dead. A lack of kerosene meant that many Japanese families faced burying loved ones in mass graves instead of the customary cremation that most Japanese prefer.
Workers at some crematoriums said they had fuel, but still couldn't process the large numbers of dead piling up in makeshift morgues. (In some cases, local officials said they planned eventually to exhume remains for cremation.) Japanese troops continued sifting through miles of rubble, saying recovering the dead was a critical step before large-scale clean-up efforts could begin.
Back in Numazu, Lauer said the next challenge for his mission team is figuring out the next step: Will the government and other aid agencies begin effectively meeting basic needs? Should other groups begin thinking about long-term rebuilding projects for families who have lost everything?
Michael Oh is also thinking about next steps. The Korean-American missionary to Japan leads a church and the Christ Bible Institute south of Tokyo. The group recently purchased a 9,600-square-foot building for ministry space. Now they're exploring the possibility of turning it into a shelter.
Oh, who was on furlough in the United States when the quake struck, said church leaders are thinking about spiritual needs also in a country where less than 2 percent of the people identify themselves as Christian. (Most Japanese practice Buddhism and Shintoism.)
"In one sense, I would say the general populace is not aware of its need for the gospel," said Oh. "But when the ground beneath you shakes, and the air that you breathe may contain nuclear radiation, suddenly all the technology and financial wealth that you may have relied upon becomes unreliable."
Oh planned to return to Japan for a seminary graduation in late March, and many other missionaries said they planned to stay in Japan as well, despite the threat of constant aftershocks, radiation scares, and dwindling supplies.
Laurie Lauer, the wife of OPC missionary Woody Lauer, said that staying is an important form of serving. "We're here to teach people about the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible, and to offer them salvation in Christ, and that's far more important than our immediate safety," she said. "We're not fearing."
When missionary Woody Lauer planned his first relief trip to help quake victims in Sendai, batteries and gas canisters weren't the only items in short supply. A physician in Lauer's church offered the team another scarce item: potassium iodine tablets. The team took the pills to protect against radiation exposure as they traveled past the badly damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, while workers raced to repair the reactor's crucial cooling systems.
Nearly two weeks after the tsunami crippled the nuclear site, Japanese officials warned Tokyo residents that infants shouldn't drink tap water: Radiation levels exceeded safety standards for babies. That created a panic that wiped out bottled water from Tokyo stores, even as officials begged residents to buy only as much water as they needed: Remember quake victims still living with no access to water, they pleaded.
Meanwhile, some scientists tried to put the news in perspective. Harold Swartz, a professor of radiology at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, told the Associated Press that the radiation levels reported in tap water were too low to pose a real risk to Tokyo residents: "We live in a world that has natural background radiation that's many times higher than the amounts we're talking about here."
Still, experts agreed that the crisis at Fukushima remained dangerous, and that the disaster would affect debates over expanding nuclear power sites around the world. But a drastic withdrawal from nuclear power didn't immediately appear on the horizon: White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that nuclear power "remains part of the president's overall energy plan."
Any energy plan that includes nuclear power is certain to face renewed questions over safety: Roger Gale, a nuclear energy consultant in Washington and former U.S. energy official, said that back-up systems should have prevented the crisis at Fukushima, and that "it's unbelievable" that similar malfunctions happened in four different units.
Learning what went wrong in Japan will be crucial for experts trying to prevent future accidents both far away and closer to home: Just 25 miles north of New York City, Entergy Corp's two nuclear reactors provide 25 percent of power to the city's 8.3 million residents. The reactors also sit near two seismic zones.-Jamie Dean with reporting by Paul Glader
Biblical disaster reporting
A family walks past buildings destroyed by a tsunami in Minamisanriku.
How to comprehend a disaster such as Japan's? We could look at some early accounts. One Puritan journalist in 1684 gave specific detail of a killer blizzard and then explained, as Jesus did concerning the tower at Siloam, that God was not picking out specific victims for punishment, but reminding us all: "Our sins for vengeance do to Heaven cry, / Yet we like sinners live in vanity, / O grant that we our sinful lives may mend, / That we may live with thee when life doth end."
In 1755, when the most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States struck 30 miles north of Boston, a special report quickly noted the news and its significance: "While God sends forth his thundering Voice, / And bids the Earth to quake; / Let Men attend the Sovereign Sound, / And all the Nations wake." The writer also called for an outpouring of compassion: "From Love to him, obey his Law, / Love God with Love supreme; / And as you'd have your Neighbor do / To you, do you to him."
The substance and style of journalism today is obviously different, but we should pay attention to the question asked in a Virginia news sermon delivered also in 1755: "Are all our affairs under the management of chance?" Pastor Samuel Davies said no and criticized his congregation's pride: "You who can eat, and forget God: you who enjoy the blessing of the sun and rain, and the fruits of the earth, and yet go on as thoughtless of your divine Benefactor as the cattle of your stall, or who look upon these as things of course, or the fruits of your own industry . . . you are practical atheists."
The Boston Recorder's coverage of the Aleppo, Syria, earthquake of 1822 was similar: It had specific detail about "mangled bodies . . . and piercing cries of half buried people," but it then turned readers' attention from Syria to home by asking a hard question: "Must we tempt God to visit us also with an earthquake?" The Recorder urged its readers to acknowledge our own pride and send aid to the suffering. Not bad advice for us as well when catastrophe comes. -Marvin Olasky
See "Helping Japan" for links to aid groups en route or already on the ground and to WORLD's continuing coverage of the disaster aftermath.
Also see the companion cover story "A world turned upside down: Under cover of seismic cataclysm in Japan, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi upturns the upheaval shaking the Arab world," by Mindy Belz.