Aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan: The Navy Grapples with Japan’s Disaster

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Lieutenant Junior Grade James Powell tells me to hold my hands out in front of my waist and waves a detector a few inches above them. “So where are you from?” he asks casually. Eyeing the digital numbers flickering on the counter, I answer. He tells me to turn around and lift my left foot so he can scan the sole of my sneaker for radioactive particles. “That’s nice,” he says.

A good bedside manner comes in handy these days in northeast Japan, where thousands of nervous residents have been scanned during the last week for radiation exposure. Passengers coming aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a mammoth nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, are no exception. Since the carrier, which has been stationed off Japan’s quake and tsunami-stricken coast since March 12, encountered a radioactive cloud last week, every aircraft and human being that lands on its 3.5 acre flight deck has to be screened for particles being released into the atmosphere by the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The ship’s some 4,400 crew members don’t seem overly concerned. “I haven’t really been too stressed,” says Terry McCray, a limited duty officer. “All my food’s staying down and I’m not glowing.” The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, bedecked with large portraits of the Gipper throughout its labrynthine halls, has been parked 12 miles off Japan’s east coast for the last nine days. It’s one of 20 Navy ships and 140 aircraft that are helping the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) get food, water and other supplies to devastated coastal towns, cities and villages, some of which are still not easily inaccessible by land after March 11’s twin disasters. “I had some concerns,” says Robert Aguilar, commanding officer of the Black Knights helicopter anti-submarine squadron stationed onboard. “What are we flying into? Where are my helicopters going? Since then we’ve gotten more information. What we’re being exposed to is low level. Not a threat to life.”

Indeed, while Japan’s nuclear crisis is far from over, the imminent danger of a full-blown fallout seems to have receded for now. But the urgency to get food, medicine, fuel, water, baby formula, diapers, batteries, kerosene, blankets, and clothes to the thousands of people living in evacuation centers for hundreds of miles along the Japanese coast has not. The distribution of relief supplies and other aid to tsunami and quake victims has been slow: Many cities throughout the northeast are still without enough food, gasoline, heating fuel, running water, electricity, or any way to communicate with the outside world. After the international search and rescue teams came and left after hope of finding survivors among the missing 13,000 people was gone, the aid effort has continued to be hampered by damaged roads and lack of manpower. Tom Ewald, a Los Angeles County firefighter who is part of the USAID search and rescue operation, had been working in the earthquake zone in Christchurch, New Zealand, before being called to Japan. “We saw very little humanitarian assistance programs going on,” he says. “I think they were being cared for, but I don’t know in what way.”

Part of that care is coming from Aguilar and his crew. On Sunday, the belly of a gray helicopter is loaded up with boxes of MREs and plastic bags of clothes. Sixteen crew members, wearing goggles and silencer helmets to keep out the thundering whir of the rotor blades, watch the helicopter get ready to go. After the doors are sealed, the aircraft lifts up over the ship and heads to shore, over an ocean strewn with the morose confetti of tsunami debris. Some 20 minutes later, when the helicopter touches down in a baseball field in the town of Ofunato, a middle-aged man in a black parka emerges to greet the crew from the school building now serving as a shelter. Many others follow, forming a neat assembly line to get the supplies off board. “We are very excited,” says Makiko Miura, a resident of Ofunato. “We have been talking about how it’s fantastic they’re here. It’s like a dream.”

Connecting the dots between what the Navy has and what people here need isn’t always easy. Supplies are coming onto the ship via other ships and helicopters, after which the Navy tries to match them with wish lists they’ve gotten from the towns on previous missions. On the way to Ofunato, Aguilar realizes mid-flight that the area they are headed to has asked for things they don’t have – rice, fuel, and baby supplies. He is only carrying food and clothes. “There’s no point in going there if we don’t have it,” says Aguilar. He negotiates back and forth over the radio, trying to see if any of the other helicopters that are out now have what this town needs, but they, too, are carrying mostly clothes. “This is f**cking ridiculous,” he fumes. “Put the s**t they need on board.” Later, when flying back to the ship to re-supply for another flight, he asks for food to be brought up to the deck, but there is no food. He is told instead that there is soda. Again, Aguilar is frustrated. “A tailgate party would be fun but in a humanitarian effort, we just look like idiots if we bring them soda.”

The two things that residents are telling the U.S. forces they need the most – medicine and gasoline – are also the most problematic for the bi-lateral marine-based relief effort. Medicine is not yet being regularly delivered by the Navy, which says the Japanese government is concerned about distributing over-the-counter foreign medicine to residents who may not be clear on how to use it. (Some medicine labels are now being translated by the JMSDF.)  The U.S. does not carry gasoline on board the carrier, and for safety reasons, Japanese helicopters cannot carry gasoline inside the aircraft, though JMSDF has worked out a system in which it can be netted and carried to shore beneath the aircraft’s carriage. At an evacuation center in Omatsu, one of the towns where Aguilar’s team made a stop, Takuro Ogasawara, a resident, says, “We really need gasoline…We can’t take sick people to the hospital.”

In its eighth day of operation, this system is still a work in progress – and will no doubt remain one until the unknown date when the carrier calls it a day. “Nobody knows for sure exactly what everybody wants,” says Stephanie Gilbeau, who was Aguilar’s co-pilot on Sunday. Trying to figure out a relief effort for triple disasters, she says, is totally unprecedented, and the weather during this cold late winter isn’t helping. “When you think, it would really suck right now if there was a snowstorm, then there’s a snowstorm,” Gilbeau says. “It’s like, really?”