First Responders

Katsutoshi Furukawa
Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

An Alzheimer’s specialist, Furukawa, 51, was looking after patients at an Ishinomaki hospital when the quake hit on Mar. 11.

I ran up the stairs and one by one checked 100 inpatients for injuries with the other five doctors and 50 nurses. Then I went into an office, turned on a portable radio, and heard a tsunami warning.

From the window, I looked to the seashore less than 2 kilometers away and saw the black surge swallowing the town. Seawater reached to the front door of the hospital. The tsunami cut off food and water supplies, as well as telephone connections and electricity.

Dozens of people who had survived began arriving, and I and the other doctors treated them. Most were wet and shivering and looked like they were in the middle of a nightmare. The staff used bed sheets to form an SOS sign on the roof. The rescue helicopters began arriving soon after. They ferried the worst casualties to larger hospitals inland.

I was trapped at the hospital for two days. We survived by eating two fist-sized rice balls a day. We were all very hungry. I slept on a couch, some slept on the floor. The water receded after some 50 hours, and I drove back to Sendai to see patients at the university hospital where I work.

I remember the first night of the disaster well. I looked from the hospital window and the land was blacked out, but burning oil had set the sea on fire. I wondered if the world had come to an end.
Mark Rohr
City Manager,
Joplin, Missouri

Rohr, 52, was at home doing chores on the evening of May 22 when a powerful tornado swept through Joplin.

Mitch, the fire chief, called and said, “We had a bad storm in the city and you need to get in here as soon as possible.” I headed out wearing what I had on. Little did I know I would be wearing it for the next day and a half.

I drove to Main Street, but I could only get so far because of downed power lines and debris. I ran a few blocks and saw a vehicle with the front windshield knocked out and two deceased citizens in it.

About 9:30 p.m., Mitch and I went up in a helicopter with night goggles. It dawned on me at that point the sheer devastation we were dealing with. It was six miles long through the city, up to a mile wide at its widest—7,500 homes were impacted.

The first efforts were focused on search and rescue. We did six passes throughout the city with the dogs. We didn’t want to abandon hope, but we had to start the debris removal at a certain point. So we had spotters that watched the debris removal in case something evidenced itself. I didn’t want to have to make that decision to tell somebody that was holding out some hope for a loved one that we had stopped searching.

A response to something of this magnitude is not written down in a book. You just have to have your wits about you and you have to have people around you that you trust and rely on. You make 100 ad hoc decisions a day. You can’t look back.
Wendie Mensah
Head of Office, Mogadishu,
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Mensah is stationed in Somalia where a guerrilla war and the worst drought in 60 years have forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

When I got here in June, we already had an estimated 372,000 internally displaced persons [IDPs] in Mogadishu as a result of the conflict. Then the famine broke out. About 100,000 more people came to Mogadishu in the space of three months.

People came into the city and traditionally settled along clan lines. They would lodge with relatives or find a space and build a bool, which is a little hut. With the influx and the creation of a very big camp in the city, the IDPs did not necessarily move along clan lines. A lot of families are also split because a husband or a brother may have stayed behind, so you have a lot of women not living near their traditional clan structures and therefore very vulnerable. We’re trying to design transitional shelters with a lockable door to protect women and girls.

As UN expatriates, our area of operations is limited by safety concerns. We have to rely a lot more on our national partners and our national colleagues. We don’t have as much freedom as I have had in other operations where I would jump in the car and go off and visit a settlement and sit down and speak to the people.

There is still a lot that needs to be done, and we still need a lot more money. And there are elections in 2012, so we are in for a turbulent year.

—As told to Karen Weise and Kanoko Matsuyama

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