By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Mr Tadateru Konoé, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Japanese Red Cross Society, arrived in Kumamoto yesterday for a two-day visit. The prefecture was struck by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake on 14 April, followed by another 7.3 magnitude tremor on 16 April. 48 people died in the disaster, at least 800 were injured, and more than 120,000 people were forced to evacuate from their homes. The President visited Nishihara, one of the worst affected villages in the prefecture, where two Red Cross disaster emergency units are operational. “I am very encouraged to see that you have come here from all over Japan to support the people who are in need,” President Konoé said in a meeting at the Red Cross branch headquarters where he spent the night sleeping on the floor, sharing their harsh living conditions.

“We may need to stay here for a long time, and you must take care of yourself as you continue serving the people who are in need,” he said, recognizing the hardship of the emergency responders. He also reminded them of the strength of the National Society in responding to disasters. “We learned many lessons from our experiences at the Ishinomaki hospital during the Great East Japan Earthquake. These are lessons that we can benefit from in our work,” said the President.

Three field hospitals with surgical facilities and intensive care units are operational in Nishihara village and Mashiki town. Both of these communities are severely affected by the earthquakes and are also very isolated, partly because of serious damage to roads. All around Kumamoto prefecture 20 Japanese Red Cross Society mobile medical teams continue to provide services to displaced people staying in evacuation centres.

Emergency shelters in Nishihara village are full of people who have nowhere else to go. A very high proportion of the displaced people are elderly, and Red Cross medical staff have to deal with many unexpected needs. It is very hot inside some shelters during the day, creating a high risk of heat stroke among the elderly people. Another serious problem is the lack of running water, which has resulted in a deteriorating hygiene situation in some facilities and a growing risk of infectious diseases.

Japanese Red Cross staff have also expressed their concerns about the risk of blood clotting among the elderly who are forced to remain immobile for long periods of time in the crowded evacuation centres. This phenomenon is often known as the ‘economy class syndrome.’

President Konoé reminded the Red Cross teams the importance of identifying the specific needs of disaster victims in each situation. “In my 50 years of experience disasters are never the same, and it is important not to depend too much on past experiences. We must visit the people to find out what their needs are,” he said.

Ms Kimiyo Shinyashiki, a Red Cross volunteer nurse, expressed her concerns about the elderly in Nishihara village. Her team found one elderly woman who is alone in her damaged house with a badly leaking roof, and in a location where there is a high risk of landslides. “The woman cannot walk, but because of logistical issues we have not been able to move her to the evacuation centre. For sure there are many similar cases around the village, but the problem is that we don’t know where they are or how many,” said Kimiyo.

The Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital has played a key role in treating patients who were injured in the earthquakes or suffered other health problems as a result of the disaster. More than 2,000 disaster victims were admitted to the hospital in the four days after the first earthquake struck. Currently, 42 medical staff from other hospitals in Japan are working there.

Many of the staff working in Kumamoto Red Cross hospital are also seriously affected by the earthquake and are unable to return to their homes. Between their long emergency shifts they are forced to sleep in their cars or evacuation centres.

President Konoé also visited Kashima town, where 20 evacuation centres are operational, and where around  100 vehicles also serve as shelters for the displaced.