‘Thankful For Life’: Japan Disaster Survivors Meet Pope

Pope Francis (front, R) greets a man, one of ten disaster victims during a meeting with the victims of triple disaster in Tokyo on November 25, 2019. Pope Francis called for renewed efforts to help victims of Japan’s 2011 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, noting “concern” in the country over the continued use of nuclear power. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP



Survivors of Japan’s so-called “triple disaster”, the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, told Pope Francis on Monday they were “thankful for being given life” and urged solidarity with victims.

Toshiko Kato was at her job as head of a Catholic kindergarten in Iwate region when the quake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. The massive waves that killed nearly 16,000 people caused enormous destruction, including sweeping away her home.

“That morning, I could not have known that the daily life I had known before I left the house would end, that in an instant many people would die,” she told Francis.

“I remember that when I stood in the rubble where my home had been, I was thankful for being given life, for being alive, and for just being able to appreciate it.”

And Kato said she felt she had “received much more than I lost.”

“Many people from all over the world opened their hearts and I was able to find hope from seeing people come together to help one another,” she said.

“Life is the most important thing, and no good life is lost.”

The human cost of the quake and tsunami was enormous — with 18,500 dead or missing. The meltdown itself killed no one, but more than 3,700 people who survived the triple disaster later died as a result of complications related to evacuations.

Nearly half a million people fled their homes in the first days after the quake and even today, roughly 50,000 remain in temporary housing.

‘I Wanted To Die’

Among those forced to evacuate was Matsuki Kamoshita, who was eight when the nuclear meltdown happened.

His father, a teacher, remained in Fukushima region to help his students, while Kamoshita and his three-year-old brother moved from place to place with their mother.

“My brother would burrow into his futon and cry. I was bullied… and every day was so painful I wanted to die,” he told Francis, speaking steadily before the crowd.

“Eventually, my father got mentally and physically ill and stopped working. Even so, I still think we are fortunate because we were able to evacuate.”

Japan’s government has been encouraging people who evacuated to return to areas that have now been declared safe after extensive decontamination.

But many fear their former homes are not really safe, and others are reluctant to return to what have in some cases become ghost towns, with few services, particularly for young families.

In his address to survivors, Francis called for renewed efforts to support the victims of the disaster.

“In this way, those who are suffering will be supported and know that they have not been forgotten,” he said.

“We cannot fully convey our suffering,” Kamoshita told Francis, who he hugged after delivering his remarks.

“Pray with us, Holy Father, that we can appreciate each other’s pain and love our neighbours. Pray that even in this cruel reality, we will be given the courage not to turn our eyes away.”

Typhoon: Japan Searches For Survivors As Death Toll Hits 56

A helicopter flies over cars immersed in water in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis in Nagano on October 14, 2019.  Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP


Tens of thousands of rescuers worked into the night Monday to find survivors of a powerful typhoon in Japan that killed at least 56 people, as fresh rain threatened to hamper their efforts.

Typhoon Hagibis crashed into the country on Saturday night, unleashing high winds and torrential rain across 36 of the country’s 47 prefectures, triggering landslides and catastrophic flooding.

The death toll from the disaster has risen steadily, with national broadcaster NHK saying Monday night that 56 people had been killed and 15 were still missing.

It cited its own tally based on local reporting. The government has given lower numbers but is still updating its information.

“Even now, many people are still unaccounted for in the disaster-hit area,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told an emergency disaster meeting on Monday.

“Units are trying their best to search for and rescue them, working day and night,” Abe said.

Later in the day, he pledged to “do whatever the country can” for victims and survivors, ordering the defence ministry to call up to 1,000 reserve troops to join 31,000 active forces in search operations.

But rescue work that was continuing into the night risked being hampered by additional rain falling in central and eastern Japan that officials warned could cause fresh flooding and landslides.

“I would like to ask people to stay fully vigilant and continue watching for landslides and river flooding,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

In Nagano, one of the worst-hit regions, officials said they were working cautiously.

“We are concerned about the impact of the latest rain on rescue and recovery efforts,” local official Hiroki Yamaguchi told AFP.

“We will continue operations while watching out for secondary disasters due to the current rain.”

 56 dead, 15 missing: NHK 

The death toll continued to rise into Monday evening, with bodies pulled from flooded cars and homes, swollen rivers and landslides.

The casualties included a municipal worker whose car was overcome by floodwaters and at least seven crew from a cargo ship that sank in Tokyo Bay on Saturday night, a coast guard spokesman said.

Four others, from China, Myanmar and Vietnam, were rescued when the boat sank and the coast guard was still searching for a last crew member.

Hagibis packed wind gusts of up to 216 kilometres (134 miles) per hour, but it was the heavy rains that caused the most damage.

A total of 176 rivers flooded — mainly in eastern and northern Japan — with their banks collapsing in two dozen places, local media said.

In central Nagano, a levee breach sent water from the Chikuma river gushing into residential neighbourhoods, flooding homes up to the second floor.

Television footage from the area showed patients being transferred by ambulance from a Nagano hospital where some 200 people had been cut off by flooding.

Elsewhere, rescuers used helicopters to winch survivors from roofs and balconies, or steered boats through muddy waters to reach those trapped.

 Japan dedicates rugby win to victims 

By Monday afternoon, some 75,900 households remained without power, with water cut off to 135,000 homes.

The disaster left tens of thousands of people in shelters, with many unsure when they would be able to return home.

“Everything from my house was washed away before my eyes, I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or real,” a woman in Nagano told NHK.

“I feel lucky I’m still alive.”

The storm brought travel chaos over the holiday weekend, grounding flights and halting commuter and bullet train services.

By Monday, most subway trains had resumed service, along with many bullet train lines, and flights had also restarted.

The storm also brought havoc to the sporting world, forcing the delay of Japanese Grand Prix qualifiers and the cancellation of three Rugby World Cup matches.

But a crucial decider pitting Japan against Scotland went ahead, with the hosts dedicating their stunning 28-21 win to the victims of the disaster.

“To everyone that’s suffering from the typhoon, this game was for you guys,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch.


California Fire Survivors Face Bleak Christmas In Shelters

A Cal Fire firefighter pulls a hose towards a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP


Luanne Wright was all set for retirement when the deadliest wildfire in California history swept through her town of Paradise. The blaze incinerated her home, her car and even the chickens in her backyard.

Now Wright is spending days leading up to Christmas with her husband and daughter on adjacent cots in a Red Cross refugee center in nearby Chico, desperately searching for somewhere to live.

Her husband is recovering from a heart attack suffered at a previous shelter.

“We were comfortable, we were happy, and now we have an acre of burned land and nowhere to go,” she said. “Everything is gone.”

The so-called Camp Fire broke out in early November in Butte County, killing at least 86 people and burning 14,000 homes in the tree-blanketed Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

Insurance claims have already topped $7 billion, and officials estimate it will cost at least $3 billion just to clear the charred debris of homes and businesses.

A few feet away in the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, where about 700 people are living in tents, camper vans and a giant exhibition hall, Rubi Solis watches over four children, four dogs, and a cat.

Solis didn’t know her estranged husband had stopped paying the insurance premiums months ago on her house in the tiny community of Concow, leaving her without coverage.

Her house was worth $200,000. The government gave her $34,900 to rebuild — enough, she says, to just about cover the cost of a new kitchen.

Her children have no school to attend. The youngest, aged four, got so stressed she started slurring her words.

Mental Scars 

The Wright and Solis families are among thousands struggling to find housing as winter approaches and they try to piece together their shattered lives. And the months ahead are unlikely to be any easier.

A year after wildfires swept through Sonoma County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Paradise, some survivors there have begun to rebuild.

But many still cope with physical losses and psychological scars — when smoke from the Butte County fires reached Sonoma County last month, many people suffered flashbacks or night terrors.

Wadner Anilus, a disaster relief program coordinator in Sonoma County, said he sees rising drug abuse and increased school drop-out rates among teen survivors of last year’s fires.

Anilus recalled one survivor saying at a group counseling session that she couldn’t wear donated clothing “because it reminded her of the night of the fire.” Two other women at the session started crying and admitted they had the same feelings but had been too embarrassed to express them.

“You just see clients sit in bed for days,” Anilus said because a year later they’re still overwhelmed.

Niveen Rizkalla, a researcher specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working with Sonoma survivors and relief workers for the past year.

They spent the weeks immediately after the fires dealing with what she calls “survival needs” such as food, clothing, and housing. Only later did they begin to confront their emotional damage.

“When people are facing the shock of losing everything in a second, they are not available to delve into themselves and see what is happening within,” she said. “We need to encourage them not to hold back, our minds will take revenge on us if we do not let them speak.”

Rizkalla said survivors often suffer suicidal thoughts and may turn to substance abuse.

“People need to escape, they need alcohol, drugs to ease their pain,” she said.

Things are even more challenging in Butte County, where the median home value is less than half that of Sonoma, and where many of the poor and elderly did not have house insurance.

The quest for normalcy is keenly felt by Trudi Angel, whose home and ballet studio were destroyed in Paradise.

Her Northern California Ballet company has presented “The Nutcracker” before Christmas for the past 32 years, and she is determined the show must go on in mid-January.

“Almost every one of my dancers or their families lost their home,” she said. “Our studio is totally gone. All the costumes, the sets, everything is gone. The dancers have no shoes or anything.”

But Angel, a former dancer with ballet companies in Munich, Chicago and Los Angeles, said contributions have come in from as far away as Stuttgart, London and Japan, and a ballet company in Oregon offered its Nutcracker costumes.

“People in the community said it’s a tradition, it’s a bright spot in our life, we need this in not so bright times,” she said. “And some of my young dancers would call me and they’d cry, ‘We miss you and we miss the Nutcracker.’ They need this.”




Trump To Visit Survivors Of Deadly Fires

Ventura County wildfires burn in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 9, 2018. The Ventura County Fire Department said the blaze had burned around 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) and evacuation orders were issued for some 75,000 homes in Ventura County and neighboring Los Angeles County. Apu Gomes / AFP


The number of people listed as missing in a northern California wildfire jumped past 1,000 as searchers found the remains of eight more victims on the eve of President Donald Trump’s trip to witness the devastation.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters the number of people unaccounted for almost doubled from 631 to 1,011 in 24 hours as authorities receive more reports of people missing and as emergency calls made when the fire broke out are reviewed.

“I want you to understand that this is a dynamic list,” he told reporters. He said that on a positive note, 329 people who had been listed as missing since the fire broke out had so far been accounted for.

“The information I am providing you is raw data and we find there is the likely possibility that the list contains duplicate names,” he said, adding that some people who had escaped may also be unaware that they were listed as missing.

The eight additional sets of human remains found to bring to 71 the total number of dead from the so-called Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in California history.

‘Forest mismanagement to blame’ 

The inferno erupted November 8, laying waste to the town of Paradise at the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and sending thousands fleeing.

Trump is set to visit the region on Saturday to survey the damage and meet victims of the fire that has devoured an area roughly the size of Chicago.

In an interview with Fox News ahead of his visit, Trump doubled-down on his earlier claim that mismanagement of California’s forests was to blame for the fires. And he acknowledged that climate change may have contributed “a little bit” to the wildfires.

“You need forest management. It has to be,” Trump told Fox.

Roslyn Roberts, 73, forced from her home in Paradise, said she voted for Trump but would disagree with him if she has the chance on Saturday.

“I would tell him that this fire has nothing to do with forest mismanagement. Thousands and thousands of homes got destroyed with no trees around,” she said amongst other evacuees at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross in a church.

In the community of Chico, just west of Paradise, volunteers had erected a tented encampment for others forced from their homes.

Before his visit, Trump tweeted that he is looking forward to meeting Governor Jerry Brown and his newly-elected successor Gavin Newsom.

“We are with you!” Trump said.

The Camp Fire has burned 146,000 acres (59,000 hectares) and was 50 percent contained by Friday, authorities said.

They added that 47,200 people had been evacuated because of the fire and nearly 1,200 were living in shelters.

Poor air quality 

Smoke from the fire forced the closure of public schools in San Francisco on Friday and the shutdown of the city’s iconic cable cars as the Air Quality Index soared to 271, comparable to Dhaka, Bangladesh and worse than Kolkata, India.

A blanket of haze enveloped the region and the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in thick smog.

“It’s bad,” said local resident Melvin Karsenti. “You have this constant haze over the city. The air feels thicker. I’ve never seen that many people wear (face) masks.”

Much of the rescue work is now focused on Paradise, a community that was home to many retirees who found themselves unable to get out in time.

Hundreds of rescuers, backed by sniffer dogs, have been conducting a painstaking house-to-house search, as authorities collect DNA from relatives of the missing to help with body identification.

“I’m still going to keep on looking and hope for the best,” said Jonathan Clark, who was hunting for his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.

“My dad is starting to lose hope a little bit,” he told AFP.

Three other people have died in southern California in another blaze dubbed the Woolsey Fire, which engulfed parts of Malibu, destroying the homes of several celebrities.

 Outbreak of sickness 

That inferno, which is about two-thirds the size of the Camp Fire, was close to 70 percent contained by Friday, as authorities predicted they would have it under control by Monday.

Adding to the misery of Camp Fire survivors, an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus has been reported at several shelters.

Public health officials said 41 people had been sick with vomiting and diarrhea as of Wednesday evening and 25 had to be hospitalized.

While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming ignorance.


Survivors Of Deadly Japan Floods Uncertain Over Future

Residents try to upright a vehicle stuck in a flood hit area in Kurashiki, Okayama prefecture on July 9, 2018. JIJI PRESS / AFP


As Tomie Takebe looked at the ruins of her flood-ravaged home in the Japanese town of Kurashiki, she struggled to say whether she would ever live there again.

Record rainfall that unleashed devastating floods and landslides has killed at least 156 people in Japan, and many of those who survived face an uncertain future in homes and towns transformed beyond recognition.

Takebe, 67, was in the Mabi district of Kurashiki in Okayama prefecture, which was partially engulfed by flooding that has now receded, leaving a thick layer of silt as a sign of where the water once was.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said, as she looked at the damage to her two storey home, its contents jumbled together and caked in mud.

“My fridge, everything… It’s all covered in mud,” she said, as relatives helped her bring items outside.

She moved around trying to work out how to clean up, but with no running water or electricity, the task seemed impossible.

And with her life turned upside-down, thinking much further ahead was a struggle.

“Maybe I’ll move and live with my sister in Osaka,” she said.

“But I’m not sure. I’m focusing on cleaning the house for now. I’ll think about the future later.”

Rumours of looters 

Emotions were running high throughout the tight-knit community, where some neighbours kept in touch with each other during the disaster, messaging constantly to check on each other’s safety.

Rumours circulated about looters or thieves targeting homes, and residents shouted at some outsiders as they moved around the neighbourhood.

On the main road, work crews had moved debris to either side of the street, lining the road with a trail of crushed and toppled cars and fallen trees.

Streams of water were still flowing like shallow rivers in some area, and everywhere there was mud left behind by the floodwater.

On one road, convenience store workers dumped expired drinks into a drain, while nearby a fish lay on its side, drying in the sun.

Hirotoshi Ohta, 50, a construction worker, was at work and said the company had lost more than a dozen trucks to the floods.

The firm had sent out some of its remaining concrete mixer trucks to bring groundwater into the area to help with the clean-up work.

But it was unclear how normal business could resume, Ohta said.

“We don’t know what to do,” he said.

“We are a construction firm, but we don’t have our trucks.”

“We’re freaked out and at a loss,” he said, as he cleaned a sand-covered parking lot.

‘I am not alone’ 

Fumiko Inokuchi, 61, was sorting through the ruined remains of the first floor of her home, carrying a picture of her children in baseball uniforms.

She was at home by herself on Saturday, after her husband went to work when she realised flood water would soon trap her in the house.

She escaped across the road to a three-storey care home for the elderly and watched in horror as the water gradually consumed the bottom floor of her house.

She and her neighbours were at the care center until Sunday morning, when soldiers in boats rescued them from a second-floor balcony.

Chatty and cheerful despite the tragedy, she nonetheless welled up as she described her home.

“I got married here, and we built this house two years afterward. We raised our three small sons to adulthood here, there are so many memories.”

But she has resolved that any insurance money she gets for the house, which she renovated only a few years ago after taking out a loan, will not go to reconstruction.

Instead, she wants to give the money to one of her three sons, so they can repair their own homes, and she hopes to move in with them.

“I am alive. I believe human beings are very strong. Resilient,” she said, tears filling her eyes.

“I am not alone in this situation. All of my neighbours are in the same position. All of Mabi is the same.”


Sierra Leone Mudslide Survivors Living Back In Danger Zone

(File Copy)

Four months after the landslides that killed her husband and more than a thousand others, Mariama Kamara has returned to the mountainside that collapsed onto their home to live in an unfinished building.

Kamara is one of hundreds of Sierra Leoneans recently kicked out of three government camps set up in the wake of the August 14 disaster, when heavy rains caused the partial disintegration of Sugar Loaf mountain, now a red rock scar looming over the country’s capital.

That day, heavy rains lashed the slopes left bare by chronic deforestation in Freetown, and huge boulders suddenly detached, rolling onto informal settlements, crushing shacks and enveloping entire households in the Regent district in red mud.

“We are back again at Regent, trying to pick up what is left after the disaster,” Kamara told AFP, breastfeeding her eight-month-old son while sitting on a cinder block.

Handed $280 (235 euros) by the British government and the World Food Programme to start a new life as a widow with three young children, the 27-year-old felt she had little choice but to return to the danger zone she had fled.

“I sold some of the handouts to pay transport fare for my two children to go to my mother, until I find a suitable place,” she explained, describing how she ended up living in one of four unrecognised settlements in the Regent area.

There are fears another landslide could strike Regent when the next rainy season rolls around.

– The school with no roof –
Despite the lack of sanitation and shelter, a school still operates in the ruined mountain district, with around 300 children learning to read and write in a building with no roof, doors or windows. Many of the students were orphaned in August.

Francis Abu Sankoh, a community leader, said the government had told him everyone eking out a precarious living had to get out by mid-November, but he refused to co-operate.

“We will not force these people to leave while they still have nowhere else to stay,” he told AFP, saying he knew of nearly 200 households living in half-finished structures in Regent.

Relief workers are meanwhile exhausted after four months filling in for a government that is too under-resourced to carry out basic disaster management, with the Red Cross handing out its own payments of $300 to 1,000 people in late December.

“We have played our part to respond to the emergency, and it is time to release the affected victims,” said Father George Crisafulli, Country Director for Don Bosco Fambul, an orphanage turned halfway house for homeless Sierra Leoneans.

“It is the responsibility of government to provide financial support and housing for them,” Crisafulli added, as he prepared for the imminent departure of around 100 pregnant women and new mothers.

He noted that the government had promised to give financial assistance to child victims via a mobile money wallet, but they were yet to receive anything. Children who lost their parents would remain at the centre, he said.

Some orphaned children were taken in by families, but many are too poor to feed another mouth while facing their own dire straits, said Cecelia Mansaray a project officer for British charity Street Child.

“People are still suffering months after the disaster,” she said. “We have cases of people in unfinished buildings around Regent, Kaningo and Kamayama who had no place to go after they had left the emergency camps.”

– Long road to Mile Six –
In the last 15 years, four major floods have affected more than 220,000 people in Sierra Leone and caused severe economic damage, according to a World Bank report issued in September.

This summer’s was the deadliest yet: 1,141 people were declared dead or unaccounted for, according to official figures.

The World Bank estimates that $82.41 million is needed over the next three years for the recovery, or about 2.2 percent of GDP, including rebuilding the six health centres and 59 schools affected. Access to clean drinking water is also a serious problem.

Efforts to resettle flood victims in previous years have failed, as the government has directed them to Mile Six, an area without transport links, running water or electricity — even if it is safe from the weather — meaning residents soon drift back to dangerous neighbourhoods that have easier commutes.

Ismail Tarawali, Head Coordinator of the Office of National Security (ONS) which oversaw relief efforts, has accused some families of making “fake claims” for survivor packages.

In the medium to long term, Tarawali said affected households would be given extra relief — if there was money to pay for it.

Meanwhile 52 affordable houses with basic facilities are also under construction at Mile Six, and a mortgage scheme will be developed for survivors who had valid land permits for their damaged houses, he said.

But eligibility will likely only apply to a tiny fraction of the victims, while the rest will find themselves back where they already were, living on the edges of society with everything to lose from next year’s floods.