EDITOR’S NOTE: A 7.1-magnitude aftershock hit northeast Japan April 7, killing three people, plunging nearly a million homes into darkness and compounding the misery struggling to recover from March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.
ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The sight of Japanese citizens surviving on a can of tuna, one piece of bread and a serving of noodles a day doled out by the government dismayed John Hayes.
All the veteran disaster relief leader could think of were the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) feeding units back home in the United States capable of producing thousands of hot meals a day.
When international disasters strike — like last month’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan — experienced disaster relief specialists from the SBDR network often are called up by Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization, to assist in assessing damages and developing a strategic response.
Hayes, from Adamsville, Ala., and Eddie Pettit of Sunset, S.C., were two of the first Southern Baptist disaster volunteers called on in March to spend 10 days with BGR and International Mission Board representatives in Tokyo, Sendai and several smaller towns in northeast Japan.
In Sendai and these small towns, the earthquake and resulting tsunami claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and caused more than $300 billion in damages. Another 17,000 people are missing. According to the World Bank and Japanese government officials, it could take five years to rebuild the devastated northeastern region of Japan.
Hayes, a 67-year-old disaster relief veteran, made the 20-hour return trip from Tokyo to Birmingham, Ala., on March 29. Hayes is disaster relief coordinator for Alabama’s Shelby, St. Clair and Jefferson counties, which includes seven local Baptist associations.
“Our group first met in Tokyo and then went to Sendai and Ishinomaki, just north of Sendai,” Hayes said. “We saw more damage from the tsunami than from the earthquake, because their buildings are built so well.
“The tsunami damage was very bad,” Hayes continued. “Before we left the States, we had seen on TV the cars being swept away by the water. When we got there, we saw where they landed. Two miles inland, we saw cars stacked up in alleys two or three high. I saw a 60- to 70-foot fishing boat in the middle of a road with no water in sight. Where we were, all the houses had been wiped out or trashed by the tsunami.”
During a meeting with representatives from Baptist Global Response, Tokyo Baptist Church, International Mission Board, and CRASH (Christian Relief Assistance Support and Hope (a group of evangelical churches in Japan), a response plan was hammered out.
“We are looking for partners like Tokyo Baptist Church and CRASH,” Hayes said. Tokyo Baptist, an English-speaking church, runs 1,300 every Sunday and is the largest Baptist congregation in Japan.
“We’re looking at partnering to either help them build a mass feeding unit or airlift one of our existing state units to do mass feeding,” Hayes added. “The Alabama feeding unit can handle 15,000 hot meals a day. We are just hoping the government will allow us to assist.”
As a backup plan, Hayes provided the Tokyo church with an equipment list to see if they can purchase equipment locally and build their own feeding unit. “If so, we’d send a team over, train them on how to use it, and work with them a week or two and let them take over the feeding.” Hayes said 15 volunteers would be needed to run the feeding operation.
“Another big need is water purification,” Hayes said. “We saw a lot of open wells, but when the tsunami rushed in, it washed all kinds of debris into those wells. So water has to be purified. We can easily install water purification units over there.”
Hayes said the water units could be centrally located at small churches in the Sendai and Ishnomaki areas, just north of Sendai. In these two cities and surrounding towns — some 150 miles south of the leaking Fukuyama nuclear plants — citizens could come to a local church, get their free purified water and hear the Gospel.
Pure water continues to be a major priority, Hayes said, with bottled water being scarce even as far south as Tokyo.
“Another area where we can help is mud-out,” Hayes said. “In the Sendai area and north, there are a lot of senior citizens 70 and above, according to the statistics. They’re unable to do the work themselves so we’re looking at sending mud-out teams over, to help them clean up the houses and debris.”
Hayes said disaster relief “could use as many mud-out teams as we could get,” but leaders of the joint relief effort are “having to work out the logistics: Where would they stay and how would we feed them? How would we get them to Tokyo and then up north where they would work?”
Two other key challenges would be the language problem and the traditional Buddhist religion and culture in the affected areas.
“The IMB missionaries tell us that the heavily damaged region has been a difficult area to work in because it is naturally a traditional Buddhist area — religiously and culturally,” Hayes said. “But if we can have a good presence up there, there can be a breakthrough and we can make a difference in their lives.”
As to the language, Hayes said, “We’d be lucky to come up with one or two within the SBDR network in the U.S. who could speak Japanese. But that’s going to be a big issue in the smaller communities in northeast Japan. There’s no problem in Tokyo, where so many speak English.
“When we send a mud-out team into a house to help them clean it up, we have to be able to communicate with that person because they have to decide what to ultimately keep and what to throw out,” Hayes added.
The leaking radiation caused by the damaged Fukuyama nuclear facilities will be an ongoing concern, Hayes said.
“We had some dosimeters,” he said, referring to small badges that measure cumulative radiation exposure. Hayes said he and Pettit wore them the entire 10 days and the radiation exposure reading was minimal. That, of course, could change.
“All disasters are different and the Japan situation is different, too,” Hayes said. “With this one, you have the three-prong hit with the earthquake, the tsunami and the radiation. We don’t know how to handle the radiation, but we sure can handle the other two.”
Hayes said he found the Japanese people to be both appreciative and gracious.
“The people are super-friendly and grateful,” he said. “We had one Japanese lady who stopped us at a rest stop and asked us if we were Christians. We said ‘yes’ and she thanked us for coming.”
With the return of Hayes and Pettit to the U.S., Don Hargis, disaster relief coordinator for the California Southern Baptist Convention, left April 5 for his 10-day assignment in Japan.
Hargis, a 19-year veteran in disaster relief, will work in conjunction with Baptist Global Response to establish an incident command system (ICS), which will enable volunteers to allocate resources effectively.
The ICS provides centralized operations, logistics, administration, public information and planning. Once the ICS is in place, other Southern Baptist Disaster Relief specialists can help train Japanese Baptists in mass feeding, cleanup, mud-out, water purification, chainsaw and chaplaincy areas.
Also making the trip to Japan is Naomi Paget, lead chaplain for the California convention, who will help Japanese Baptists understand the importance of ministering to the spiritual and emotional needs of their fellow citizens.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. Terry Barone is communications group leader for the California Southern Baptist Convention and editor of The California Southern Baptist.