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Japan teams enter disaster zone, find no radiation
Susie Rain, Baptist Press
April 01, 2011
8 MIN READ TIME

Japan teams enter disaster zone, find no radiation

Japan teams enter disaster zone, find no radiation
Susie Rain, Baptist Press
April 01, 2011

TOKYO — It took

six days for Southern Baptist disaster relief specialists from Alabama

and South Carolina to gain access

to Japan’s tsunami- and earthquake-stricken Tohoku prefecture.

It only took a few minutes, however, for them to understand the intense fears

surrounding the nuclear crisis and how it affects disaster response.

Hardly anyone was at the Tokyo

airport when John Hayes of Birmingham,

Ala., and Eddie Pettit of Sunset,

S.C., arrived March 19. With no traffic, the bus trip into town took only an

hour that Saturday, a ride that normally takes two or more. Even the busiest

crosswalk in the country only mustered 15 to 20 people. Normally this corner is

a sea of hundreds dressed in black business suits, jockeying for space to cross

the street.

Despite living more than 200 miles from the failing Fukushima

nuclear plant, Tokyo residents

stayed home, creating a “ghost town” atmosphere. In a city of nearly 13 million

people, most venture out only to purchase bottled water and toilet paper.

“The fear of radiation is really the biggest obstacle in responding to Japan’s

disaster,” Pettit admits. “It’s not only affected the Japanese but it’s

dominated the media and created fear throughout the world.

“We have to convince the people in the States that it’s safe to work here,” he

adds. “I want Southern Baptists to know that the radiation scare is a lot worse

in the States than it is here now.”

Tokyo and surrounding areas are

slowly coming back to life three weeks after the nightmare began. People are

venturing back to work and restaurants reopening. The fear, though, is still

hidden just below the surface. It comes out in simple things like wondering if

the fruit or vegetables you buy came from Fukushima

or if the tap water has radiation contamination.

The possibility of radiation is always at the back of people’s minds,

especially when members of Tokyo Baptist

Church sit around a table to talk

with Hayes and Pettit on ways to launch a disaster relief ministry amid Japan’s

triple disaster.

Every idea put on the table immediately gets thrown into the “do later” pile as

team members grapple with how to handle the nuclear crisis. It seems like the

radiation concern is a roadblock to every ministry possibility, until Hayes

quietly pulls out something that looks like a credit card. He peels back the

red plastic and points to the blue dot on the radiation detection card, called

a dosimeter.

Pat Melancon, left, of Baptist Global Response opens food and supplies brought into a neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Japan, March 28 by a Southern Baptist relief team. Melancon led the disaster response team, which included Eddie Pettit, center, of South Carolina

and Kevin Qualls, an International Mission Board church planter based in

Sendai, Japan.

“Look! I’ve been wearing this ever since I arrived in Japan

and it hasn’t registered any radiation exposure levels yet,” Hayes says, noting

that all Southern Baptist workers and their children were issued a card to

measure their exposure to radiation, allowing them to return to their

ministries and homes. “Volunteers will wear one of these cards at all times,

too. We want everyone safe while they are ministering in this disaster.”

Having a way to measure radiation exposure changes the climate of the meeting.

It goes from “What will we do in the future?” to “Let’s do something now.” The

timing could not have been better. The very next day, the Japanese government

lifts restrictions to most areas of the disaster zone. Tokyo

Baptist Church

immediately sends the newly trained disaster relief team in one direction and

Hayes and Pettit go another. All leave with a dosimeter hanging around their

necks, offering a sense of safety but not invincibility.

Pettit says the long wait to actually visit some of the disaster area for assessment

is not normal for their teams. In other natural disasters, the Southern Baptist

Disaster Relief Network responds immediately and hits the ground running. In Japan,

however, they are just now making their first assessment trip into the heart of

the region struck by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The radiation fears

have a little to do with this delay, but the main reason is government

restrictions and the lack of gasoline.

A two-man team from North Carolina Baptist Men united with

another two men from Hungarian Baptist Aid March 11 to work with Rescue 24 to

help with search and rescue if needed. Because the government had many areas

blocked off the team could not assess hard-hit areas early on in the crisis but

they did meet with other Baptist leaders there to provide some initial

assessment. They also helped get food to an evacuation center.

“Developing countries do not have a disaster plan or the infrastructure Japan

has,” Pettit says, explaining how important it is to work within the Japanese

system and not just respond unilaterally, like many did after Haiti’s

earthquake a year ago. “Each disaster is different and this one is three

disasters in one: earthquake, tsunami and radiation fears. It doesn’t matter

how long it takes us to get established, there is going to be plenty of

disaster work for a long time.”

Any fears of radiation are quickly forgotten as Hayes and Pettit survey an area

safely outside of the 50-kilometer radiation zone suggested by the United

States. The magnitude of this disaster and

the need for future relief work sinks in as the pair walk down the streets of

Ishinomaki. Despite Japanese government forces working around the clock since

the quake, the destruction is still overwhelming, a stark contrast to the

normally pristine and orderly Japanese lifestyle.

Hundreds of cars pile up at odd angles. Some stack on top of each other three

or four high. Broken boats sit stranded on side streets and open lots. Ships

lean to one side on empty roads. Seven-foot-high walls of trash line streets

outside homes filled with a foot of mud.

Entire neighborhoods are still without electricity or kerosene. Nearly 377,000

people are in shelters and thousands more shiver in damaged and waterlogged

homes. People sit in the cold all day and night. A snowstorm and cold front hit

northeastern Japan

just hours after the tsunami.

Hayes and Pettit see many ways specialized Southern Baptist disaster relief

teams could work and minister, filling in behind government forces: shoveling

mud, providing hot meals and distributing supplies — if they were invited by

the government. They stop to talk to a family who owns a kimono store destroyed

by floodwaters.

“We need to help get the mud and debris out of the houses. That’s pretty labor

intensive,” Hayes says. “It might seem small to us, but it will plant a seed.

We can show the love of Jesus Christ and make a difference.”

Pettit and Hayes quickly teach some Southern Baptist missionaries how to

properly muck out the kimono shop. As Hayes bends over to help, his dosimeter

swings out from under his jacket. The Alabaman nonchalantly glances at the

exposure reading, then quickly tucks it away. Nothing registers. He wonders

about the church team just 15 miles down the road.

That group is working diligently, remembering everything Pettit and Hays taught

them. They prepare 3,000 hot meals a day in a neighborhood without electricity and

no access to relief supplies. Every two hours, the team leader diligently

checks her dosimeter.

Nothing registers, giving them confidence to continue ministering and lead two

people to Christ.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rain is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in

Southeast Asia. The International Mission Board has

established a relief fund for the Japan earthquake. Donations may be sent to:

Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond,

VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online

by going to www.imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For

further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113. North Carolina

Baptist Men is also collecting funds to help with recovery efforts. Make check

payable to N.C. Baptist Men, P.O. Box 1107, Cary, NC 27512. Designate your

check Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Fund.)

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