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Japan teams enter disaster zone, find no radiation

TOKYO (BP)–It took six days for Southern Baptist disaster relief specialists from Alabama and South Carolina to gain access to Japan’s tsunami- and earthquake-stricken Tohoku prefecture.

It only took a few minutes, however, for them to understand the intense fears surrounding the nuclear crisis and how it affects disaster response.

Hardly anyone was at the Tokyo airport when John Hayes of Birmingham, Ala., and Eddie Pettit of Sunset, S.C., arrived March 19. With no traffic, the bus trip into town took only an hour that Saturday, a ride that normally takes two or more. Even the busiest crosswalk in the country only mustered 15 to 20 people. Normally this corner is a sea of hundreds dressed in black business suits, jockeying for space to cross the street.

Despite living more than 200 miles from the failing Fukushima nuclear plant, Tokyo residents stayed home, creating a “ghost town” atmosphere. In a city of nearly 13 million people, most venture out only to purchase bottled water and toilet paper.

“The fear of radiation is really the biggest obstacle in responding to Japan’s disaster,” Pettit admits. “It’s not only affected the Japanese but it’s dominated the media and created fear throughout the world.

“We have to convince the people in the States that it’s safe to work here,” he adds. “I want Southern Baptists to know that the radiation scare is a lot worse in the States than it is here now.”

Tokyo and surrounding areas are slowly coming back to life three weeks after the nightmare began. People are venturing back to work and restaurants reopening. The fear, though, is still hidden just below the surface. It comes out in simple things like wondering if the fruit or vegetables you buy came from Fukushima or if the tap water has radiation contamination.

The possibility of radiation is always at the back of people’s minds, especially when members of Tokyo Baptist Church sit around a table to talk with Hayes and Pettit on ways to launch a disaster relief ministry amid Japan’s triple disaster.

Every idea put on the table immediately gets thrown into the “do later” pile as team members grapple with how to handle the nuclear crisis. It seems like the radiation concern is a roadblock to every ministry possibility, until Hayes quietly pulls out something that looks like a credit card. He peels back the red plastic and points to the blue dot on the radiation detection card, called a dosimeter.

“Look! I’ve been wearing this ever since I arrived in Japan and it hasn’t registered any radiation exposure levels yet,” Hayes says, noting that all Southern Baptist workers and their children were issued a card to measure their exposure to radiation, allowing them to return to their ministries and homes. “Volunteers will wear one of these cards at all times, too. We want everyone safe while they are ministering in this disaster.”

Having a way to measure radiation exposure changes the climate of the meeting. It goes from “What will we do in the future?” to “Let’s do something now.” The timing could not have been better. The very next day, the Japanese government lifts restrictions to most areas of the disaster zone. Tokyo Baptist Church immediately sends the newly trained disaster relief team in one direction and Hayes and Pettit go another. All leave with a dosimeter hanging around their necks, offering a sense of safety but not invincibility.

Pettit says the long wait to actually visit some of the disaster area for assessment is not normal for their teams. In other natural disasters, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Network responds immediately and hits the ground running. In Japan, however, they are just now making their first assessment trip into the heart of the region struck by the the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The radiation fears have a little to do with this delay, but the main reason is government restrictions and the lack of gasoline.

“Developing countries do not have a disaster plan or the infrastructure Japan has,” Pettit says, explaining how important it is to work within the Japanese system and not just respond unilaterally, like many did after Haiti’s earthquake a year ago. “Each disaster is different and this one is three disasters in one: earthquake, tsunami and radiation fears. It doesn’t matter how long it takes us to get established, there is going to be plenty of disaster work for a long time.”

Any fears of radiation are quickly forgotten as Hayes and Pettit survey an area safely outside of the 50-kilometer radiation zone suggested by the United States. The magnitude of this disaster and the need for future relief work sinks in as the pair walk down the streets of Ishinomaki. Despite Japanese government forces working around the clock since the quake, the destruction is still overwhelming, a stark contrast to the normally pristine and orderly Japanese lifestyle.

Hundreds of cars pile up at odd angles. Some stack on top of each other three or four high. Broken boats sit stranded on side streets and open lots. Ships lean to one side on empty roads. Seven-foot-high walls of trash line streets outside homes filled with a foot of mud.

Entire neighborhoods are still without electricity or kerosene. Nearly 377,000 people are in shelters and thousands more shiver in damaged and waterlogged homes. People sit in the cold all day and night. A snowstorm and cold front hit northeastern Japan just hours after the tsunami.

Hayes and Pettit see many ways specialized Southern Baptist disaster relief teams could work and minister, filling in behind government forces: shoveling mud, providing hot meals and distributing supplies — if they were invited by the government. They stop to talk to a family who owns a kimono store destroyed by floodwaters.

“We need to help get the mud and debris out of the houses. That’s pretty labor intensive,” Hayes says. “It might seem small to us, but it will plant a seed. We can show the love of Jesus Christ and make a difference.”

Pettit and Hayes quickly teach some Southern Baptist missionaries how to properly muck out the kimono shop. As Hayes bends over to help, his dosimeter swings out from under his jacket. The Alabaman nonchalantly glances at the exposure reading, then quickly tucks it away. Nothing registers. He wonders about the church team just 15 miles down the road.

That group is working diligently, remembering everything Pettit and Hays taught them. They prepare 3,000 hot meals a day in a neighborhood without electricity and no access to relief supplies. Every two hours, the team leader diligently checks her dosimeter.

Nothing registers, giving them confidence to continue ministering and lead two people to Christ.
Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. The International Mission Board has established a relief fund for the Japan earthquake. Donations may be sent to: Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online by going to www.imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113.

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  • Susie Rain