More than a half million Japanese have lost or evacuated their homes since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a monstrous tsunami struck the island nation on Friday. Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees had fled homes near three nuclear reactors rocked by explosions that sent workers scrambling to prevent dangerous radiation leaks. Authorities warned another 140,000 residents to stay inside on Tuesday after another explosion erupted at the Fukushima nuclear plant on the northeastern coast of Japan.
The northeastern region was already reeling from the quake and tsunami that likely killed at least 10,000 people, and swept homes, cars, businesses, boats, and debris out to sea. Aid workers reported that shelters were overflowing with quake victims and running dangerously low on vital supplies like food and water.
Hospital workers said they were running out of medicine to treat chronically ill and elderly patients in the fastest aging nation in the world. (More than 20 percent of Japan's population is over 65.) Toshiyuku Suzuki, 61, lost all of his heart medication when the tsunami swept away his coastal home, but also suffered an irreplaceable loss: his 91-year-old father and 25-year-old son.
Rescue workers struggled to reach victims throughout the northeast, as bodies continued to wash ashore. Japanese officials asked USAID (the U.S. government agency that responds to humanitarian disasters) to coordinate search-and-rescue help. By Monday, the agency had dispatched two teams of 144 specially trained rescue workers and 12 search dogs. The USS Ronald Reagan-an aircraft carrier that had been en route to South Korea during the quake-is serving as a refueling base for Japanese helicopters.
Aid groups struggled to reach victims, as The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimated that donors worldwide had given at least $12 million to relief agencies for Japan in the first three days. The Salvation Army-a U.S.-based organization that has worked in Japan since 1895-reported that three emergency relief teams were working in quake-affected areas by Monday. One of the teams is assisting residents evacuating from the nuclear power plant zone. Another team pressed far north into Sendai, one of the cities closest to the quake's epicenter. The group reported that the normally six-hour trip from Tokyo to Sendai took 20 hours.
Samaritan's Purse workers were on their way to Sendai by Tuesday morning. The North Carolina-based group is partnering with Japanese churches to deliver aid to affected areas. Those partnerships are crucial: Church leaders obtained permits for the aid agency to enter the disaster zone-a critical step in reaching victims. The church leaders also have arranged trucks to transport relief supplies. Back in the United States, the aid group is filling a 747-cargo jet to deliver more supplies to the region later this week.
Another group-Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope (CRASH)-is working with the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association to deliver aid to a network of churches across the region. The group reported that it deployed survey teams by train, car, and motorcycle to assess the damage, and said the workers face a complex challenge: Communication is difficult and cell phone networks are unreliable, while gas, electricity, and food supplies are scarce in many affected areas. CRASH workers said that Japanese churches across the country had volunteered to help with the efforts. (Less than 2 percent of Japan's population identifies itself as Christian.)
After meeting with CRASH, missionaries with Mission to the World (MTW)-the mission agency for the Presbyterian Church in America-sent teams to assess needs in the disaster zone. MTW missionary Bob Drews reported that his team delivered 1,000 liters of water and 60 liters of fuel to the town of Iwaki-Shi, and supplied a shelter near a church housing 100 quake victims. (The residents said no other official help or supplies had arrived.) MTW reported that Japanese church members had provided most of the supplies for delivery and helped load the transports.
Other missionaries offered assistance with even fewer supplies: The International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention reported that the Qualls-a missionary family of six living in Sendai-have no electricity, gas, or running water. Donna Quall reported that grocery stores were running low on supplies. "Stores only allowed families to spend up to 1500 yen [about $15]," Quall told IMB. "They divided the food into bags that were 500 yen each. We bought a meat bag, a drink bag, and a cereal bag."