Japan’s Nightmare

Church mobilizes to help evacuees following earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Caritas priest notes heavy response from young volunteers.

LIFE IN RUINS. A man cries next to his destroyed house where his dead mother is buried in the rubble in Onagawa, Japan, March 17. Officials estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed and more than 400,000 made homeless by the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster.
LIFE IN RUINS. A man cries next to his destroyed house where his dead mother is buried in the rubble in Onagawa, Japan, March 17. Officials estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed and more than 400,000 made homeless by the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster. (photo: CNS photo/Reuters/Yomiuri Shimbun)

YAMAGATA, Japan — Residents of the area around a crippled nuclear power plant in Japan were dealing with fear, uncertainty and lack of information in the days following the devastating earthquake and tsunami March 11.

After the magnitude-9 earthquake, reactors at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant were hit by explosions, and Japanese officials ordered hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

Kazuhiro Kikuchi, his wife, Kazuki, and two of their three children were staying at a large sports center-turned-evacuation center in the city of Yamagata, about 40 miles north of Fukushima, where officials were struggling to contain fires and radiation inside the crippled nuclear plant’s six reactors. Until March 16, the couple lived some 30 miles away from the plant.

“We kept saying to each other, ‘It’ll be all right; it’ll be all right,’” said Kazuki with emotion in her voice.

“We even went outdoors,” said Kikuchi, “to search for missing people.”

But the way the government has handled the situation “makes me furious,” Kikuchi said. “I do not want them to create an additional disaster.”

“Nobody told us we had to evacuate,” explained his wife, “but we finally realized that we had to flee. We absolutely do not want our children to run the danger of exposure to radiation.”

Kikuchi, a small private contractor who has worked with the Fukushima plant, 140 miles northwest of Tokyo, for many years, was there when the earthquake and tsunami struck.

The natural disasters knocked out the cooling systems for the plant’s reactors March 11.

“I was working near boilers on the 10th floor when the earthquake struck,” Kikuchi explained. “All the steam pipes around me broke loose, and the conditions were incredible. I could barely stand.”

Soon after that, he observed the tsunami racing towards him. “That was beyond belief. We first saw a dark line on the horizon,” Kikuchi said, moving his hand in a wide stroke from right to left. “Then it came closer, and a white wave formed. When it got here, a huge overhang crashed into the building, some 10 to 15 yards high. Some 200 cars in the parking lot were all swept together.”

Kikuchi was impressed by the reaction of the plant’s employees: “They knew the emergency manual, and we were able to evacuate quickly. There was no panic. But people were, of course, scared and surprised.”

That has been typical of residents affected by the disaster.

“Today the dominant feeling is fear,” said Father Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan, as reported by Catholic News Service March 16. “The biggest concern is that of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It is a ghost from Japanese history coming back to haunt us. But it must be said that the people are not indulging in panic; instead, they are reacting with poise and dignity.”

Kikuchi couldn’t even leave the plant until the next day — and it took even longer before he knew if all his children were still alive.

“It took us until the fourth day until we finally got everybody together again,” said his wife, Kazuki. “All the time I didn’t know if they were alive.” Their daughter was at Sendai Airport, which was also hit by the tsunami. “I was so scared,” Kazuki said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Their daughter survived, was rescued and managed to make it back home — one of the many miracles of this disaster.

Now Kikuchi’s former source of income has become a source of indignation and fear. “I expect the worst,” he said, with deep conviction.

Expecting the Worst

As reactors have suffered partial meltdowns and are leaking radiation, the Japanese government has evacuated everyone within a 13-mile radius of the plant and has advised residents to remain indoors within a radius of between 13 and 20 miles. But Kikuchi, who knows the plant well, is convinced that the situation cannot be kept under control, and that this is far from sufficient. He feels that people as far away as 50 miles could be exposed to radioactivity.

In fact, U.S. government officials recommended March 17 that American citizens living within 50 miles of the plant evacuate the area, and the Pentagon and State Department began preparing to evacuate families of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel from the country.

“This would pose problems for the next three generations,” he said, referring to the damage radioactivity can cause to DNA, “just like what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Meanwhile, Church officials in Japan were setting up an emergency center to coordinate humanitarian aid operations in Sendai, the area most devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, according to CNS.

The center will be managed by Caritas Japan and will draw on the resources of numerous Catholic volunteers who have come forward in the wake of the disaster, the Vatican missionary news agency Fides reported.

Japan’s bishops, meeting in Sendai March 16, decided to establish the center and initiate additional relief efforts under the supervision of Caritas.

“The biggest buildings in Sendai withstood the very strong earthquake. The greatest damage was caused by the tsunami. The panorama of destruction is striking. Now we’ll have to roll up our shirtsleeves. People are expecting our help,” said Father Narui.

Father Narui said he was encouraged by the enthusiasm of Japanese youth offering to help the displaced.

“Young people are continually coming to Caritas from all the dioceses to offer their availability as volunteers to bring aid to the areas most affected by the disaster,” the priest told Fides. “This is an important sign that gives us hope for the future.”

Father Narui said although many people had been evacuated and others were being asked to stay in their homes, “in the worst-affected areas the main problem is the lack of food and fuel. As there is no fuel, people cannot move. And they are left feeling powerless in the face of this tragedy.”

Earlier, Bishop Martin Tetsuo Hiraga of Sendai told Vatican Radio that many area residents, cut off without electricity and with some phone service just restored, were unaware of the worsening situation at the Fukushima plant.

“You living in other countries have a much better idea of the tragedy,” the bishop told Vatican Radio.

“We are terrified,” the bishop said. “We only have the government announcements; we have no other source of information. We don’t even know what has happened to our parishes in the towns and villages along the coast. We have no way of contacting them. I can only hope that the people of my diocese can stand together and be strong enough to overcome this disaster.”

Japanese officials estimate about 10,000 people died in the disaster.

People Left Behind

The Kikuchis are worried about the people they left behind. One family member is seriously ill and in hospital. He was too weak and ill to travel. His wife stayed with him. One of their sons, who works with their city’s Chamber of Commerce, has also stayed behind. “He is helping with preparing the area against radioactive fallout,” said Kazuki. “He is working so hard.”

Both are furious about the lack of information. “We are told nothing,” Kazuki said.

“And they also say nothing on television, right?” her husband added, referring to the complaint by Japanese media that there are many press conferences which clarify very little, if anything. “They show nothing but images of the explosion, but we don’t know whether radiation was released or not. There is a lack of truly clear information.”

“Because of that, there are lots of people who do not understand the situation,” said Kazuki.

“They don’t realize the terror that Fukushima represents,” her husband added. “They don’t know the problems that radiation can cause them.”

“This is not just some obscure accident,” Kikuchi said. “The electricity company and the government have the obligation to carefully publicize the information they have. Their negligence to do this and the time they are wasting this way could cause far more serious and troubling conditions.”

“I want them to take the right actions,” said Kazuki, clasping her hands together as if praying. Clearly attempting to control a powerful wave of emotions and worries, she continued, “I want them to protect the lives of the people in the disaster area.”

“They ought to be concerned for the people we hold dear,” her husband added, “and all the other people who are left behind in the area near the nuclear plant.”

“They should be transported to a safe place as quickly as possible,” said Kazuki, tears welling up in her eyes.

“They should also make gasoline available to the people there, or buses, so they can leave,” said Kazuki. “Many of the people who have no gas just give up.”

Register correspondent Kjeld Duits filed from Yamagata, Japan. CNS contributed to this report.