International Medical Corps and The Association for Aid and Relief (AAR) Japan are working together to build the capacity of communities to respond to future disasters in a way that is more representative of the entire population by putting more emphasis on assisting people with disabilities (PWDs). Taking into account PWDs during the planning of disaster response protocols is critical, because during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the mortality rate for PWDs was more than double that of the average population.
As part of our initiative, International Medical Corps and AAR Japan are continuing to partner with Iwaki Jiritsu Seikatsu Center (IJSC), a local non-profit organization supporting PWDs in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture. The goal of this partnership is to help develop self-reliance among PWDs by taking their needs into account during the planning process, and including them in a way that will allow them to express their needs and take ownership of their role in the management of emergency shelters.
For such an initiative to be successful, International Medical Corps and AAR believe it is crucial to work with key people in the community who can share the lessons they learned through experiencing emergency shelter management in order to help raise the community’s awareness of the various needs and abilities of PWDs. In this regard, we are privileged to work with Shiro Sawai, school principal of Yumoto Secondary School #2 in Iwaki City. Shiro was in charge of an emergency shelter located in his school for a total of 74 days, from March 13 until May 22nd.
Important Lessons Learned from Running an Emergency Shelter:
When the earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, Shiro was standing outside of his school. Fortunately, graduation was also that day so all of his students had gone home at noon.
In Japan, public schools are often designated as emergency shelter sites. While there were schools closer to the affected areas that were designated as shelters, Shiro knew there was still a possibility that people evacuating from the coastal areas would start coming to his school to seek refuge. Shiro and his vice-principal immediately decided that they would stay at the school for as long as needed and keep the emergency shelter open.
Later that day, a total of 10 people showed up to seek shelter at the school. Since the school didn’t have any emergency supplies, aside from some floor sheets, the people brought their own futons and blankets. On March 13th, when the nuclear power plant accident forced thousands from their homes, 280 people arrived at Shiro’s school. Two-thirds of them arrived by a city-chartered bus and one-third used their own cars to reach the school. Many of the evacuees that came by bus had evacuated from homes for the elderly. The influx of these elderly and disabled people presented an unanticipated challenge for the undersupplied shelter.
“The first thing you need to know about emergency shelters,” says Shiro, “is that some of your expectations will come true, especially in the beginning… Emergency shelters are cold (in mid-winter), noisy, dirty, and inconvenient. And yes, it is terribly difficult to get any sleep there. There will inevitably not be enough food, drinking water, or blankets. There will be lots of garbage to deal with. Medical care will also take some time to arrive.”
Emergency shelters are the last resort when people have nowhere else to go, and it is generally the most vulnerable who end up spending the longest amount of time there. Young, single people tend to stay only for a short time, those with small children stay a little longer, and the elderly and people with disabilities tend to stay the longest. These trends are why Shiro believes it is imperative that emergency shelters adapt to the needs of the most vulnerable given that they are the population that demonstrates the greatest need from emergency response services.
Shiro said that one of the most difficult aspects of running an emergency shelter was creating and maintaining a roster of all the people staying there. Particularly in the beginning, the school was flooded with calls from people wanting to know whether their family or loved ones were there and safe, etc. Since people come and go every day, it was difficult to keep track of everyone’s movements. Shiro says that the importance of a consistently updated roster cannot be underestimated, and that its proper stewardship was one of the first lessons he learned through experience during this disaster.
When creating a roster of residents, Shiro emphasized that it is very important to ask people what they can do (e.g., cook, use a PC, carry things, etc.) Everyone has a role to play, and it’s important that they know this and are counted on to help. Shiro created multiple teams consisting of both volunteer staff and evacuees soon after people began arriving at the shelter, including a cooking team, a water distribution team and a health team (in charge of running morning exercise classes, checking in with the evacuees to see who needs assistance, etc.). He continued to create more teams to meet new needs as they arose over time.
Shiro felt that it was also important to make sure evacuee-children played a role in the shelter’s management. They were put in charge of tea time; bringing candy to the other residents and talking with them; and distributing newspapers. In the evening, the teachers and other adults helped the children with their homework.
Through this experience, Shiro found that the average Japanese public school is an ideal place to have an emergency shelter. Even if the building may be old and not up to universal design, it still held many advantages in times of an emergency, including:
Shiro strongly believes through his experiences that emergency shelters are not a place to come and wait to be helped; they are places to regain the strength and know-how to become self-reliant again. The most important lesson Shiro says he learned during his emergency shelter management is the need to be flexible and to maintain a sense of humor, even in times of crisis. Shiro is working closely with International Medical Corps on this project by offering his lessons to other schools and shelters in the community in the hopes that they will adopt some of the more helpful points in emergency shelter management during future disasters.
International Medical Corps has partnered with The Association for Aid and Relief (AAR) Japan to build the capacity of Japanese community organizations to offer greater protection to people with disabilities in the aftermath of a disaster. In the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the mortality rate of people with disabilities was more than double than that for the average population. While AAR responded quickly and effectively, in the aftermath of the earthquake, it became clear that there was a critical gap in addressing the needs of people with disabilities (PWDs). As a result, International Medical Corps and AAR Japan are working to build the capacity of local communities and agencies to improve preparations for rescue, relief and recovery efforts that better reflect the needs of the entire population, with a special focus on PWDs.
Some of the factors that led to the disproportionate casualties experienced by the elderly and disabled were: physical inaccessibility of the temporary shelters (e.g. not accessible by wheelchair, difficult to access bathrooms, etc.); difficulty of PWDs in communicating needs; existing social attitudes toward the disabled; lack of access to critical information; and a lack of necessary medication/medical equipment at the shelters.
To ensure these groups do not suffer the same difficulty in a future disaster, International Medical Corps and AAR believe that it is important to establish emergency response standards that are applicable to all people, including the elderly and PWDs. Our agencies agreed that as a first step, persons with disabilities must be actively engaged in the earliest planning stages in non-disaster times. Their unique perspective and experience, based on International Medical Corps’ global approach to disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness, is essential to the reducing PWD vulnerabilities and building capacity toward becoming self-reliant their stated need to be both respected and supported.
As part of our initiative, International Medical Corps and AAR Japan are partnering with Iwaki Jiritsu Seikatsu Center (IJSC), a local non-profit organization supporting PWDs in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, to pilot two inclusive emergency shelter exercises to a wide variety of local community members. There are two important goals for this activity. The first is to help develop assertive behavior among PWDs in Iwaki City so that they can articulate their needs and take ownership in the management of emergency shelters. The other goal is to raise awareness in the local community about the varied needs of persons with disabilities and the roles and responsibilities they can take on in times of disaster.
The model for the emergency exercise was developed and base-lined by observing another non-profit organization that does similar work in Koshigaya City, Saitama Prefecture. A local non-profit organization supporting PWDs had hosted an annual two-day emergency shelter event, beginning in 2011, that emphasized the active participation of traditionally vulnerable populations including persons with disabilities, children, women, and the elderly. According to Hide Higami, who is the Head of Koshigaya Sleep-Over Emergency Shelter Event Committee and also a person with disabilities, the purpose of this event is to have people experience what it is like to be in an emergency shelter on “Day One” of a big disaster.
On August 17–18, 2013, International Medical Corps Country Representative Yumi Terahata, AAR Japan Fukushima Program Coordinator Atsushi Naoe, and Iwaki Seikatsu Jiritsu Center staff member Yoshi Komatsu participated in Koshigaya’s third annual event. It was an incredibly educational experience for all three partner organizations, providing a number of ideas to incorporate into our own initiative. International Medical Corps and AAR will leverage this new relationship with the event committee members who facilitated this experience to utilize their advice and expertise, while also exploring ways to collaborate across prefectures in the future.
The first of International Medical Corps supported emergency shelter exercises in Iwaki City will take place later in 2013. The simulation, based on International Medical Corps’ emergency simulation exercises across the globe, will include an impromptu run-through (i.e., with no preparation and minimal information passed on to the participants regarding the nature of the exercise) which will allow all participants to experience what it would be like to suddenly be thrust into an emergency shelter without any personal provisions. A public school gymnasium will serve as the site of the drill, and International Medical Corps and AAR will invite a wide range of participants including persons with disabilities, women with small children, and the elderly to make this exercise as realistic and inclusive as possible.
The location of this exercise has been chosen because it is not up to universal design standards, like many emergency shelters in Japan (e.g., without ramps for wheelchair accessibility, etc.). Persons with disabilities will be paired with other members of the local community and will work together to note the various issues and obstacles around making a shelter accessible to persons with different needs. Building on the lessons learned during the first drill, participants will work together to improve the shelter plan. We plan on practicing the improved plan in the first quarter of 2014.
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Director, Resource Development