The aftershock of disaster

A woman reacts amidst debris caused by Friday's massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, in Natori, northern Japan
A woman reacts amidst debris caused by Friday's massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, in Natori, northern Japan
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Thousands dead. Thousands missing. A once-thriving coastal town of 17,000 people wiped out, in one savage seismic shift.

Nuclear plants in partial meltdown. Devastation as far as the eye can see and the mind can imagine. All of it stretching into the very future of a nation, once the most stable of the super-economies, having fought back from the ultimate act of war, now being rewritten by cataclysmic natural disaster.

The fact so many have ceased to exist, where once they lived, loved, worked, studied, played and prayed, is so beyond comprehension, that a nation which seldom alludes to the past compares it to Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the A bombs were dropped during the Second World War.

That’s 66 years ago, the summer of 1945, still within living memory of many who fled the earthquake and the tsunami, children or teenagers when the bombs fell, killing 140,000 men, women and children.

As the death toll mounts in Japan today, prompting people in the Fylde to respond to international aid appeals, via Oxfam and the Red Cross and other frontline agencies, it’s the children and teenagers who Professor Cary Cooper expects to be most scarred by the experience.

Lancashire’s leading psychologist knows what it’s like to be a child in a quake zone. He grew up in Los Angeles, on the San Andreas Fault, and he says it tempered his outlook on life: “Kind of makes you realise how fragile life can be, and how important loved ones are.”

There is, as one local woman, Rachel Wilson, 27, a former Arnold School pupil now teaching English in Japan, puts it: “Nowhere to run.”

It’s in the pysche of the Japanese to do what they have to do in silence and with dignity, although the respect with which they hold their dead runs far deeper than tears could tell.

“They are not a people given to publicly expressing their feelings,” adds Prof Cooper. “And that’s what I fear most, for them, and their children, the post-traumatic stress. They need to open up. There must be specialists out there to help them do just that.”

Six Lancashire search and rescue specialists from firefighting ranks, as well as medics and charity workers, have joined the international aid team on the devastated far north of Honshu Island.

They have spoken, movingly, of the relief on the faces of those their convoy has passed, and their hopes of finding survivors in a country where earthquakes are such a way of life: all are drilled on what to do, and how to behave, at first suspicion of a tremor.

Right now the emphasis is on rescue and remedial work, digging people out, ensuring survivors have water, food, shelter, sanititation and medical supplies to get through the next few days.

Equally pressing, Prof Cooper argues, is the need to support people emotionally broken by sights surpassing understanding, whose need to grieve is hampered by the loss of loved ones, as they pick through debris in the hope of finding family and friends.

Rebuilding broken people is the real challenge, he says. “Nobody is thinking of post-traumatic stress yet, it’s all about getting shelter, food, clearing the rubbish. But massive post-traumatic stress is going to occur after this. Can you imagine how insecure kids will feel and what memories even the smallest quake, rumble, or siren, will evoke? The psycho-social issues are horrendous for all. This will shake people to their very core. This is life, not a disaster movie.”

Prof Cooper adds: “How do you cope? There is nowhere to run, no place to hide, no way out. Japanese mental health services aren’t as well developed as they are here – because people in Japan have problems admitting their feelings.

“To deal with the magnitude of problems to come, others must help.

“Things can happen in an instant, and it should make us all reflect on our lives, what really matters, and stop getting worked up by minor things.”