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Surviving Kobe

by Naomichi Shirata
When disaster strikes unexpectedly, immediate and immense needs can quickly overwhelm regular emergency services and medical facilities. In the case of the Kobe earthquake last January, the Japanese Red Cross drew on its countrywide network of services and volunteers and provided a rapid and comprehensive response.

It was 5.56 on the morning of 17 January 1995. The strongest and most devastating earthquake recorded in Japan in the last 70 years slammed into Kobe, the country’s biggest seaport, killing more than 5,000 people, injuring an estimated 38,000 and causing some 319,000 to seek refuge in over 1,200 shelters.

Mamoru Oyama, a 39-year-old officer of the Okayama chapter of the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS), felt the tremors. He dashed to the chapter office and by 9.38 he was in a Red Cross ambulance, equipped with blankets, bandages, radio antennae and a generator. His task was to reach the Red Cross’s Hyogo chapter in Kobe 140 km away as swiftly as possible and restore the radio station which had lain silent all morning.

“As I approached Kobe I saw that it was obscured by an ominous cloud of smoke,” he recounts. “Fire was sweeping through the city and I could feel the heat of the flames even inside the ambulance. There was not a soul in sight.”

Oyama finally made it to the chapter office and set up the radio station, restoring vital communication. He remained at his post in front of the radio for 18 hours, talking unceasingly with other Red Cross ambulances and rescue vans approaching Kobe. On the first day of the disaster alone, 180 people in 23 medical teams were dispatched to the area with food, drinking water, blankets and kits packed with basic necessities.




Injuries abound

By the end of March, when the local health facilities were once again able to resume normal services, the JRCS had sent 979 medical teams to the area and provided treatment to 38,000 people. Out of a total of 47 JRCS chapters, all sent staff or volunteers to the scene of the disaster and 44 chapters sent medical teams consisting of a doctor, three nurses and two administrators. The teams were on 24-hour standby in the 92 Red Cross hospitals throughout Japan and they participated regularly in relief activities.

Dr Tetsuro Ishii, a surgeon at the Hiroshima Red Cross Atomic Bomb Hospital, arrived in Kobe on the day of the quake to lead the Hiroshima chapter’s medical team. “When I got to the Takatori school in the afternoon, after battling through the flames and sparks, I found thousands and thousands of people taking refuge in the building,” he said. “I also recognised some 50 patients who had been hospitalised before the quake. We began by treating these patients and then proceeded to care for the others. Within three hours we had treated more than 220 patients and we moved on to another establishment.”

With so many medical installations out of action, the two Red Cross hospitals in the earthquake area, Kobe and Suma, were stretched beyond capacity. In particular, the 126-bed Kobe hospital, located in the city centre, was filled to more than double its capacity.

In order to provide more effective care, 12 medical centres were opened in Kobe, Nishinomiya, Ashiya and Awajishima, the earthquake’s epicentre. A medical team was assigned to each of these centres and either dispensed medical care at the centre itself or organised mobile clinics in their respective areas.

The Hyogo Red Cross Blood Center in Kobe city was also affected by the earthquake. The disruption of water and electricity supplies made the collection of blood almost impossible in the early days after the tremor. In mid-February blood collections started again, with a blood donation bus and two blood collection offices at Amagasaki and Akashi. During this critical period, the blood centres of Osaka and Okayama launched an extensive blood donation campaign, which was sufficient to cover the needs.

A flood of generosity

From the beginning of the disaster, the local Red Cross branches received a huge amount of relief goods donated by the private sector. As of mid-April, the JRCS, in co-ordination with the Disaster Relief Head-quarters set up by the government and the municipality of Kobe, transported blankets, drinking water, food and vital necessities to the victims in shelters and private houses. The relief supplies distributed included 66,000 blankets, 45,000 items of clothing, 40,000 parcels of utensils, 6,145 packages of daily necessities, 10,700 Red Cross food parcels, 182,000 litres of drinking water, 33,000 kilos of rice, 223 bicycles, 283 tents and 160 emergency latrines.

Red Cross volunteers were a valuable resource for carrying out relief activities. More than 1,800 people were assigned to the area and were active in the fields of first aid, hot-food kitchens, and the distribution of food and other relief items.

“On the day after the quake we began distributing onigiri (rice balls), a Japanese favourite, at the Kobe city hall,” recalls Ms Sachiko Furuya, head of the Inami county Red Cross volunteer group and a veteran of Red Cross volunteer activities. “As Kobe residents were not able to prepare hot meals, we brought all the necessary cooking devices and made soups and a whole variety of noodles. People asked where we had come from, and when I explained that we had come from Inami, a suburb of Kobe some 30 kilometres away, they were filled with gratitude.”

A number of foreigners were also among those affected by the earthquake and had temporarily lost any means of contact with their families abroad. At the request of ten other National Societies, the Japanese Red Cross established an emergency tracing service which dealt with 1,800 cases.

Although the Japanese Red Cross did not launch an official request for assistance, it received 1,300 million Swiss francs through the generosity of Japanese citizens.

As of mid-April, some 50,000 people were still living in makeshift shelters, in a relatively precarious situation, with little prospect of being provided with temporary housing by the government. The rehabilitation phase, a daunting new challenge for the JRCS, has now begun.


Naomichi Shirata
Naomichi Shirata is the Assistant Director of the Planning and Public Relations Department of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

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