Japanese Rotarians witness devastation
A red line indicates the tsunami level on this clinic in Kamaishi, Japan. Toshiro Ueda, a member of the Rotary Club of Otsuchi, Iwate, who runs the clinic, was barely able to escape by running to the fourth floor. Photo courtesy of Tatsuo Seshita
"The earth seemed to be shaking forever, and it was so strong," says RI Director Masahiro Kuroda. "I thought I was going to die."
Kuroda, a physician, was seeing a patient on the second floor of his medical clinic in Hachinohe, Aomori, Japan, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the country’s northeast coast struck on 11 March.
"I escorted her downstairs. Holding each other's arms tightly, we walked down very slowly. After we reached the bottom floor, the earthquake stopped," says Kuroda. "I led all the other patients outside and told them to go home, but she said she was too scared to leave and wanted to stay in the clinic. I didn't know what to say -- she was so frightened. She left a couple of hours later and safely arrived home."
The quake, the largest to hit Japan in recorded history, triggered a tsunami that swept 6 miles inland, destroying entire villages.
Kuroda and several staff members stayed at the clinic overnight after hearing on the radio that the waves had come close to the building. Kuroda's home and clinic were spared, but just a couple of miles east, the tsunami and quake had caused major destruction.
"All I was trying to do was to prepare for the night and get heat," he says. "It was very cold. I tried to find some oil and batteries for the stove and candles. The electricity went out, so it was dark and hard for everyone to walk around. There were constant aftershocks, really strong ones. We all were very scared."
Kuroda says he couldn't reach fellow Rotarians at first.
"Landline phones, cell phones, and e-mail were down for three days, We were completely isolated," he says. "In the hardest-hit areas of District 2520 [Iwate and Miyagi], we don't know all the details of the damage. There are still Rotarians we haven't been able to contact yet."
Naoki Narayama, governor of District 2520, visited some of the affected villages soon after the earthquake.
"Our district, especially its Pacific coastal areas, sustained very severe damage. The devastation is much bigger than what we are seeing on TV," he says. "Search and rescue efforts continue. In the areas hit by the tsunami, there is an acute shortage of food, water, gas, and medical supplies."
Narayama fears that the death toll, already estimated at more than 12,000, will rise. But he is encouraged by the response of Rotarians.
"In this darkest hour, I have received numerous heartwarming messages from Rotarians all over the world," he says. "Their considerate inquiries and kind offers of helping hands have greatly encouraged us to tackle this daunting destruction."
Tatsuo Seshita, governor of District 2550 (Tochigi), says his district wasn't hit by the tsunami but was badly damaged by the quake.
"I kept under my desk. I was afraid that the shaking would continue forever," says Seshita. "When the big pillar in my office cracked, I thought it was going to fall down on top of me. Luckily it stood, but I thought my time had come."
Seshita traveled to the city of Kamaishi on 2 April to deliver relief supplies to a medical clinic run by Toshiro Ueda, of the Rotary Club of Otsuchi, Iwate. Ueda was barely able to escape to the fourth floor of the clinic during the tsunami, which reached up to the third floor.
Kuroda says Rotary clubs are doing what they can to support those affected by the disaster. "Despite the shortage of gasoline, many Rotarians are driving to deliver supplies to the areas most in need," he says. "We all, as Rotarians, are working together. I am deeply moved by what I'm seeing Rotarians do."