Japanese Red Cross provides medical and psychosocial aid to thousands of Kumamoto earthquake evacuees

Red Cross emergency medical teams are still providing medical services to people living in evacuation centres in the small town of Mashiki in Kumamoto which was badly affected by the two earthquakes that struck the prefecture on 14 and 16 April.

Twenty of the 45 deaths caused by the disaster were in Mashiki, and thousands of evacuees are still unable to return to their homes.

“In the first earthquake everything inside the house got thrown on the floor. Fortunately the building did not collapse until the second earthquake on 16 April,” said Mr Hiroshi Furusho, a 76-year-old barber, as he stood beside his wife and stared at the ruins of their house. The clock that used to hang over the door of his shop lay in the rubble, showing 9:26pm, the time of the first earthquake on the evening of 14 April.

“We lost both electricity and water after the first earthquake. The house was such a mess that we decided to go to the evacuation centre and that is what saved our lives,” said Mr Furusho. “This is such an enormous loss for us. The building was a hundred years old and my father and grandfather owned this barber shop before I took it over,” he said. “But we cannot complain, many people are in a much worse situation, and two of our neighbours even lost their lives.”

The evacuation centre in Mashiki sports centre is the biggest in the town, now providing shelter to more than 2,000 people. While there is no running water the evacuees are able to get drinking water and a warm and safe place to sleep in. For thousands of families it is still very difficult to return home, because their houses have no electricity or water, and many structures are badly damaged.  

“Every few minutes there are aftershocks and sometimes they are really strong, so people are also afraid to sleep at home, especially if the houses are old," said Rena Igarashi, one of the many Japanese Red Cross staff working in the disaster area. "Nobody knows if there is going to be a third big earthquake."  

"When the first earthquake struck, everything went completely dark and I put my book over my head to protect myself against things falling off walls and shelves,” said nine-year-old Kokona Niino who is staying in the evacuation centre together with her mother and her siblings.

“After that we moved to my grandparents' place, but the next night another earthquake hit, this time much bigger. We tried to get out of the house but we couldn’t because the door was completely stuck. Then we tried the window and we couldn’t open that either,” said the little girl. “Then grandpa kicked the window and broke it and that was how we all got out. This was really the scariest part of what happened, and I was still in my pyjamas.”

“My little sister is only two years old, and every time there is an aftershock she wakes up crying,” Kokona said, demonstrating the deep psychological impact that the disaster has had on children in Mashiki town.  

Staff members in all emergency response teams at Japanese Red Cross Branches have been trained to provide psychosocial support in disaster situations. “Because of the many injuries that people suffered after these earthquakes, we have been prioritizing medical relief and other life-saving services, but there is an enormous need for psychosocial support and our teams have now been deployed to provide assistance to children and adults who are traumatized with fear, as well as to those who have lost their loved ones and sometimes all their belongings,” said Ms Igarashi.  

“Our Red Cross staff are also working long hours and are under pressure to provide relief to the earthquake victims. They are under enormous physical and emotional stress and sometimes they also need psychosocial support,” she added. 20 JRCS mobile medical teams are working around the clock providing medical care in all affected regions, and as of 18 April the Red Cross hospital in Kumamoto city has treated more than 2,000 patients.

Meanwhile hygiene conditions in the Mashiki evacuation centre are deteriorating. “There are now about 2,000 people here in Mashiki sports centre, but they don’t have running water, so they cannot wash their clothes or themselves. It is difficult to clean the floors or anything else when there is no water, and this is one of the many urgent issues that we are now attending to,“ Ms Igarashi concluded.

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

A Japanese Red Cross relief worker comforts a woman with small children after she arrived at an evacuation centre in Mashiki town in Kumamoto prefecture.