Cover Story

Higher ground

"Higher ground" Continued...

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

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."

Power struggle

Precaution rules as Japanese await verdict on nuclear reactors

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.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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