If your life is in danger, call the police at 110

Disaster Preparedness: an Anniversary, and a Reminder


Hundreds of stone tablets dot Japanese coastal hillsides, erected by previous generations across the centuries, as a reminder of the dangers of forgetting the destructive power of post-earthquake tsunamis.

But we humans do forget. It’s our nature.

About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and 80 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the “Ring of Fire” that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, and Japan has a front row seat.

The Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011 remains fresh in the memories of those of us who experienced it, but the international community in Japan is continually turning over, and many people who were here on that day have left the country (many of them in the aftermath of the resultant nuclear reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant), while many others have arrived.

Following the devastating events of March 11, TELL provided counseling, support, information and resources in an effort to meet a dramatic increase in mental health needs in Japan. Also, working with International Medical Corp., TELL provided state-of-the-art Psychological First Aid (PFA) training to the staff of many NGOs and support organizations working with affected people.

Like many relief organizations, TELL was stretched thin in the days, weeks and months following the earthquake and tsunami, while the slow-motion disaster in Fukushima continued to unfold, and created a tremendous amount of anxiety on its own. TELL staff and counselors and therapists were themselves psychologically affected, but as an organization we focused our efforts on a handful of key areas.

First and most important, the Lifeline operated without interruption during and after the events of March 11, and our website, with our WikiTELL database of community resources, also saw heavy traffic from people who were trying to figure out what to do.

Then, once the scope of the disaster became clear, and disaster relief teams began to arrive in Japan, TELL worked to connect NPOs, NGOs and government agencies, helping coordinate a variety of responses.

Finally, as emergency responders themselves began to struggle with all that they had seen and done, TELL shifted our efforts to providing Psychological First Aid training to NGO workers, and compassion fatigue workshops to NGO staff members and individuals who had volunteered in the disaster area. Much of this work was made possible thanks to financial support from International Medical Corps, AmeriCares, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

In normal times, over 50 percent of callers to TELL’s Lifeline are Japanese, and during a disaster Japanese speakers are well-served by Japan’s superb disaster preparedness infrastructure.

Those who speak less-than-fluent Japanese, however, can find themselves wondering what is going on, and uncertain how to respond. The Lifeline fielded many, many calls from people who were feeling anxious after the earthquake and tsunami, then, for weeks afterward, wondering what was going on at Fukushima Daiichi.

Of course, we at TELL were wondering what was going on as well. [The prime minister himself had more than a few questions for TEPCO, we later learned.] We focused on trying to gather accurate, reliable information, and with the support of volunteer translators, we produced concise guides to coping with mental health issues after a traumatic event, and to helping children to cope after a disaster, in English, Japanese, Chinese (tradition and simplified characters), French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, Serbian, Swedish, Tagalog, Turkish, Urdu and Uzbek.

Five years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and in seven years we will mark the centenary of the Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo and the Kanto region, killing over 140,000 people. Another big earthquake will come, that’s for sure.

Some of the tsunami stones in the coastal hills of Tohoku date back hundreds of years. They warn future generations not to forget hard-learned lessons about disaster preparedness. Here in Japan most of us have earthquake kits at home, and if we have taken basic precautions we will survive the initial trauma and should be fine for a few days of power outages and disruption.

Worth remembering are that most vulnerable in a disaster are children and the elderly. Your stress levels will be significantly reduced if you have in place a plan for meeting or contacting one another in the event public transportation and telecommunications are disrupted. Also important for parents is to act in control and try to maintain as many normal rituals as possible to mitigate potential trauma and stress on the children.

But once things begin to return to normal, many people will feel anxious, or find their sleeping or eating patterns disrupted. Many people will  have trouble concentrating, and making decisions. At the same time, many people will think, and say, “I’m fine.” But everyone who experiences or sees a disaster is affected by it. No one is untouched.

It’s completely normal to be “not fine”. And there are things you can do to help yourself recover. Most of these are the things you can (and should?) do to help yourself live a healthy life: eat healthy food, drink plenty of water, avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine, get plenty of rest, and try to exercise regularly. Re-establish your (and your family’s) routine, and get back to doing the things you enjoyed doing before the disaster.

But if you or a family member or friend or colleague is still having trouble returning to normal, it’s okay to ask for help. Support is available from mental health professionals at TELL or elsewhere, and via most companies’ human resources departments and EAP providers. Or call the Lifeline. We’re here to listen.