Frightening silence. No moans, no creaking structures, nothing. Walking along near the Sendai Airport less than 72 hours after the quake, I had an eerie feeling as I passed by flattened and flipped houses tossed like so many dice.
The only sound was from rescue workers who had finally made it to the area.
"Anybody there? Please make any sound. Anybody there?"
Absolutely no sound.
Each of the police officers had driven hours from western Japan, and none were equipped for what seemed like an impossible mission. No rescue dogs, no small high-tech devices to detect the slightest hint of sound. Just big shovels and long sticks. Peering inside mud-covered houses, they kept tapping the roofs and walls.
"Do not go into any house by yourself. Go in as a team of two or three," the commander tells his team.
Even where water has receded, the loose cement-like mud brought by the tsunami coats streets and houses. The air is tinged with gasoline fumes.
I remember the sounds of the city of Kobe when it was struck by the Great Hanshin Earthquake back in January 1995. Survivors walking up and down the streets asking for help, tearfully hugging their neighbors in bittersweet reunion, speaking to loved ones trapped under the collapsed houses, trying to retrieve any belongings they could from the rubble.
All those sounds I heard in the midst of the devastation in Kobe are nowhere to be found in the coastal cities. One common characteristic, covered extensively by the international media, is the resilience and even graciousness of the Japanese people at a time of crisis.
In Kobe, a couple who owned a small coffee shop offered each member of our U.S. TV crew a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. They opened the shop despite the fact they had lost their house to the quake. Instead of tending to their house, the couple decided to focus on the immediate task of helping survivors. They opened up the coffee shop, also badly damaged by the quake, and offered free food and drinks to neighbors and strangers alike.
As we said goodbye to the lovely couple, I handed the wife some Japanese bills, which she put right back into my hands. The couple bowed deeply to our crew saying, "Thank you for sending the news out to the world. We are very sorry we could not serve you enough food."
The same thing happened to me this time in Sendai. As we made our way along streets covered with mud, we spotted a group of residents sitting in a circle, taking a break from their long day of cleaning. As soon as we said hello to them, one rushed to hand me a bagful of rice crackers. Another man started to count how many of us were in the team and searched in a cardboard box to share soft drinks with us. They also apologized for not being able to welcome the American TV crew with a proper meal.
When I left Sendai five days after the quake, 280,000 survivors were living in shelters and that number continues to rise. Heavy snow started to fall in the region and the temperature dropped drastically. The people I met in a local junior high school told me no support had reached them. A few volunteers were scrambling to meet the acute needs of survivors who had to flee their homes leaving everything behind. Literally, everything.
It will be months and even years before they can pick up their lives. Even for those people with the best qualities one can hope for at the time of such a calamity, time is running out.
They need help now.
The last time a big earthquake hit northern Japan was 2004. Japan’s public broadcaster NHK said 16 people were killed immediately. But 52 more died after they survived the severe quake as they went through the hardship of post-quake life in makeshift shelters. Some of those living in their cars died of economy-class syndrome from staying in cramped positions for many hours. Similar tragedies took place after the Kobe quake Those are lives we could have saved.
There are at least 280,000 lives we can save now. Right now. We cannot repeat the sad history of turning those survivors into casualties. We need to "keep survivors survivors."
No single life should be lost from here on.
Let’s take action now and save the lives that already have been saved.