3 minute readInternational, Military Support

Helping When People Can’t Help Themselves

This post is written by Brittany Reynolds, Assistant Station Manager with the American Red Cross in Yokota Air Base, Japan.

Yokota Air Base - Japanese Earthquake
American Red Cross volunteers give boxed meals provided by the 374th Force Support Squadron, to passengers at the Taiyo Community Center. Photo Credit: Yokota Air Base

When the quake started I had just returned from runing some errands around base, sat down, and thought that the chair was broken because it was wiggling under me. I stood up to tighten the obviously loose bolt and realized that everything was still moving. The pictures on our walls were swinging like pendulums, our ficus trees were trembling, our American flag ended up falling, supported only by the chair sitting next to it. We heard glass shattering as a picture fell off a wall in a nearby office. Once we went outside, we could see people pouring out of the Community Center next to our office building. Between the frequent aftershocks I passed out ARC earthquake brochures to the people standing around the community center until all our brochures were gone.

It was all very surreal. Inside we turned on the Japanese news to see where the quake had originated and its magnitude was. We watched for the next hour as the earth shook and water overtook the east coast of our country. My best friend had just been gotten engaged a few months prior in a location that was on fire and sinking. My brain, training, and mostly adrenaline took over, but what was actually happening didn’t quite sink in.

During our faithful watching of the news coverage, we received a phone call activating the Yokota Red Cross’ disaster team. Some flights were diverted from the nearest international airport and we were needed to help receive and shelter passengers from a few of those flights. We put out a call for volunteers, grabbed our disaster “go-box”, and headed out. We got there and then the waiting began. Volunteers began to pour into the center. There was a variety of types of volunteers: some had extensive disaster training; some never had contact with the Red Cross before this catastrophe. Each shared common ground – all were ready to pitch in and do whatever was necessary to help out. We ended up waiting about five hours before any passengers showed up, and then the passengers ended up being there for another 14+ hours or so.

This was my first disaster, and I wasn’t even really in the disaster-affected area. We found out that the 8.9 quake had lessened to 5.0 by the time it reached Yokota, and we’re far enough inland to not have to worry about tsunamis. The failing cooling systems of the nuclear reactors weren’t an issue at this point, so all we had to do was focus on these passengers. Between trying to organize volunteers into different shifts at different locations with different jobs and the information being changed what seemed like every 5 minutes, it seemed like chaos and confusion… and I was in the middle of and co-leading the Red Cross response. I felt a bit frazzled (to say the least), like I was constantly being pulled in different directions, and was definitely a little sleepy.

On a military installation, the Red Cross takes a support role to the military’s disaster plan (which should, and in our case does, include the Red Cross). We set up a table to do Red Cross Safe and Well family linking, trained some volunteers, and then augmenteed the additional volunteers to help support the military operations (which are the same as the type of sheltering operations we’d be in charge of back in the States). It seemed that everyone – volunteers and staff alike – expected the worst: irritable passengers that have been flying for 12+ hours only to miss their connecting flights and/or not know where their families are. Compounded on that, cell phone communications were down, the internet was intermittent, and due to customs/immigration, smokers couldn’t even smoke without an escort. What we encountered was the complete opposite.

There were rumors going around all night about what had happened to the passengers on the other flights. I don’t know if any of them were true, but I do know that the people that spent the night at Yokota were incredibly grateful to be there. One person talked about the sea of blue (Red Cross volunteer vests) that they saw that gave them a sense of comfort. Another, after almost everyone else was asleep, came up to our table and thanked us profusely for offering our services… then held his computer up so he could show his wife the Red Cross workers that helped him out via Skype. Once passengers were finally being loaded onto buses to go back to their planes the following day, a man sent a runner for me so he could tell me that once he gets to his destination he’ll be giving the Red Cross a $5,000 donation because of our excellent volunteer service at the shelter.

Once I got some sleep… it finally sank in.

This is why I do what I do – it’s all about helping when people can’t help themselves.