On Friday, March 11, 2011, the fourth most powerful earthquake recorded, a 9.0 magnitude, occurred off the coast of Japan. The earthquake triggered tsunami waves that reached at least 133 feet in some places. Honshu, Japan’s main island was shifted eight feet and the earth was shifted on its axis between 10 and 25 centimeters. The impact on Japanese communities was devastating. Japan has confirmed 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injuries, and 2,562 missing people. At least 228,863 people were relocated, many permanently. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed or partially destroyed in the affected area including much of the infrastructure.
Making an already devastating situation worse, the tsunami waves caused flooding at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting in cooling failures and a nuclear disaster that is second only to Chernobyl. The effects of the meltdown lead to an evacuation of the area, which largely remains in effect today. In five years, Japan has cleared and collected millions of tons of radioactive debris, but has not settled on a long-term strategy for dealing with the radioactive materials. Following Chernobyl authorities closed a “zone of alienation” to allow for natural decay, which is largely uninhabited. For Japan, closing such a large area of land is not an option. The only other option is secure storage, but a permanent secure storage site has not yet been determined.
When the Fukushima disaster happened, Foundation Beyond Belief was making plans to announce a rapid disaster relief program a few months later in the summer of 2011. The massive devastation that the tsunami and meltdown caused required an early implementation of the program. FBB announced our first Drive on March 12, 2011, and raised $20,748, 100% of which was donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) for their disaster response efforts. JRCS works with the Japanese government on relief assistance carrying out medical relief including psychological care, collecting and distributing donated supplies, collecting and maintaining blood supplies, and directing miscellaneous volunteer activities. In non-disaster times, they develop disaster management plans in conjunction with the national government. In an attempt to learn from Fukushima and prepare for the future JRCS has launched an online nuclear disaster archive that includes a nuclear accident response manual.
We have learned a lot since this, our first, Drive. Donating funds to an existing, local organization is important. Even though local organizations are often affected themselves by a disaster, they already have the people, knowledge, and connections to know where the greatest need is. Though JRCS is a local organization and we are confident the donation was put to good use toward the relief effort, it’s possible that we would not choose them as a Drive beneficiary now. Since 2011, we have renamed the program Humanist Disaster Recovery. That change reflects a focus on disaster recovery rather than relief. Though those sound like close synonyms, they are not. In emergency response “relief” or “response” refers to the phase immediately after an event when the focus is on meeting basic needs to keep people alive: food, water, shelter, and medical treatment. This is important. It is also a relatively short phase and gets the most attention with international news coverage and donations. Recovery is the transition to normalcy that follows relief. Recovery activities are activities like clearing debris, repairing or rebuilding infrastructure and buildings, and reopening schools. Recovery can last months or years. The need for support does not disappear after the relief phase is over, but with the news cycle moved on, support does disappear. In fact, help is most needed during recovery, but the number of organizations focusing on disaster recovery is extremely low. It is for this reason that Drives now benefit recovery efforts in the wake of a disaster.
We cannot stop all disasters, but we can learn from what went wrong and what went right in our response and the responses that we witness. Our goal at FBB is to combine those lessons with emergency management research in order to effectively respond to disasters and to help disaster survivors around the world.
Follow Humanist Disaster Recovery Network on Facebook for updates on future HDR Drives and information on volunteering with HDR Teams.