Nuclear Crisis Continues, But Not for Caregivers in Japan’s Shelters

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The crippled nuclear plant at Fukushima continued to grab headlines on Sunday, as Japanese media reported that radiation levels in the water at reactor 2 are now 10 million times above normal levels (a reading the Tokyo Electric Power Company now says was a mistake — though radiation levels are still worryingly high). As of Sunday afternoon, workers trying to cool that reactor had been evacuated, while seawater near the plant has been measured to have 1850 times the amount of radiation over its normal level. The government, on a somewhat more positive note, also announced that radiation levels in Tokyo tap water have been steadily dropping and for the third day in a row, were safe for infants to drink. It’s doubtful that will assuage many parents’ concerns; it still seems that as far as Japan’s nuclear crisis goes, things are going to keep getting worse before they get better.

But for many in the tsunami-stricken swaths of Japan’s east coast, the worst passed with the fury of March 11. Akemi Komoro, a nurse working at an elementary school turned evacuation center in Minami Sanriku, says the worst was over when she knew she had survived, trapped for 20 freezing, dark hours on the top floor of the Shizugawa Public Hospital with the patients that she and her colleagues refused to leave. “Since then, things are getting better,” Komoro says.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to be easy, particularly for the small army of health care workers and volunteers tasked with caring for a large, newly homeless population.  After helping evacuate dozens of patients by helicopter, Komoro now faces the longer, arguably more difficult task of monitoring the health of a gymnasium full of mostly senior citizens. Though some temporary shelters have begun to be built along parts of the coast, it will be months before the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the this month’s natural disasters have non-communal housing to live in.

For now, basic medical supplies, which were glaringly short in the first week after tsunami, are not Komoro’s main concern. Her medical operation in a room attached to the school gym has finally been stocked with everything from cold medicine to diapers. Komoro says they are short on specialized medicine, like insulin and oxygen, but the roads in and out of town are open now and emergency cases can be driven to the hospital nearby. Instead, it’s the chronic diseases of elderly residents that will strain her small operation over time; the few people tucked into the beds in Komoro’s ward are suffering from dementia. She says psychological trauma from the disaster has not manifested among any of her patients yet, but, she adds, “It could show up later.”

Maintaining a supply of basic necessities for the long-term health of residents, particularly the elderly will need vigilant attention  in the coming months. Though images are emerging of shelters setting up makeshift baths in a sign of some return to normalcy, as of Thursday other locations still didn’t have gas needed to heat water for residents to bathe. At a shelter in Sendai, where some public housing was damaged in the quake, elderly residents had (understandably) been avoiding taking cold showers in the below freezing temperatures, and hadn’t bathed in nearly two weeks. Hoshino Yuya, a 25-year-old volunteer from Niigata, said he was worried about the hygiene in such closer quarters, and of people getting each other sick. He also says he’s been giving out a lot of instant food supplied by the Japanese Special Defense Forces — a diet that has helped solve the immediate problem of hunger, but will not serve resident’s health in the long term. “Vegetables are very hard to find,” he said.

As the rest of the world gets increasingly tense about Japanese produce, managing the flow of information about what’s happening at Fukushima seems likely to continue to monopolize Tokyo’s attention. Indeed, just today, an official at the Ministry of Health told Bloomberg that the quantity of radiation-affected produce will increase as prefectures continue to test their foods. As of yesterday, about 100 products were found to have radiation contamination, and consumers around the world are balking at buying Japanese goods. The question is whether the mistakes made in the immediate aftermath of March 11 — in particular the myopic attention to red tape and Fukushima that kept food, water, heating and gasoline out of tsunami-struck areas — are doomed to be repeated as Japan slowly moves into the next phase of its triple disaster. One would hope that memory would serve better than two weeks.