by Bernard Unti
Having completed their impact assessments, provided crucial training and support to Japanese responders, and helped to foster a unified command approach, the first group of HSI disaster responders is coming home after two weeks in the field in Japan and another week in the Philippines preparing for their mission.
During their time in-country, team members devoted themselves to evaluating the needs that could be addressed by foreign disaster response teams and identifying possible channels for the effective application of foreign assistance.
Difficulties meet capability
The situation on the ground has been greatly complicated by the risks and uncertainties associated with the release of nuclear radiation from the Fukushima Daiitsu nuclear reactor, and the severity of restrictions placed by the Japanese government on movements near or in the surrounding sector.
At the same time, the representatives of Japanese organizations with whom the HSI team met quickly made clear their desire as well as their ability to respond to the emergency on their own terms, and asserted that they had sufficient capacity but inadequate funding to implement some of the necessary actions. There has been an Animal Disaster Response Team in Japan since the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe in 1995.
Active on many fronts
During the first days of response, the HSI team worked closely with Japanese partners to enhance temporary animal shelters and pet-friendly practices at centers serving evacuees, providing recommendations and protocols for emergency sheltering, reporting guidelines, and reunification procedures.
In addition to meeting with animal organizations, HSI responders met with government representatives from five different prefectures (provinces). Tokyo was their base of operations, but the team visited Niigata (on the west coast; the base for several rescue operations despite being a four-hour drive away from the disaster areas), Sendai (north of the damaged reactor), Iwaki (south of the reactor), Minami Soma and the Fukushima prefecture (staying outside the 20 km exclusion zone).
In Iwaki, the team met with several rescue groups and provided instructions on the importance of scanning animals (and people) for exposure to radiation. They also helped set up procedures for recording and reporting animal rescues. In Sendai, they visited the veterinarian who had taken on the responsibility of delivering supplies to other veterinary hospitals and temporary animal holding facilities in the region. HSI helped provide supplies to support these activities.
Coping with Fukushima
The area around the nuclear facility at Fukushima appeared to create the most challenges. It was estimated that possibly as many as 30,000 pets had been left behind when people were evacuated, together with an unknown number of farm animals. There is very limited information supporting these estimates and it is difficult to know whether the situation is as serious as asserted.
With respect to the threat of radiation and lack of access to the disaster zone, the HSI team provided plans and protocols for feeding programs now being carried out by Japanese volunteers in or near the forbidden sector in Fukushima Prefecture, and hundreds of pounds of dog food. A small number of local Japanese rescue organizations and individual owners continue to enter the area to care for roaming animals and pets still in homes.
HSI personnel also trained Japanese volunteers on proper safety measures, use of personal protective equipment, safe capture of animals, and decontamination protocols.
Thanks to the generosity of The Animal Rescue Site and the caring people who donated to help—making possible a swift and thorough initial deployment—HSI is in a position to do more good in Japan in the weeks and months to come. We plan to continue our work with Japanese organizations to provide expertise, in-kind support and financial assistance for the continuing challenges posed by the disaster.
HSI’s next set of priorities include the refinement of a unified command for recovery work; a calculation of animal numbers at temporary, permanent, and co-sheltering facilities; and a comprehensive assessment of near- and long-term needs.
In the weeks ahead, HSI specialists will continue their efforts to assist with the improvement of temporary sheltering and field response. There is a great need for programs to deal with the predictable spikes in packs of dogs, disease transmission, and overpopulation problems that follow in the wake of every large-scale disaster, and for changes in policy to make disaster response in Japan more animal-friendly in the future.
We will continue to pursue our work through the hiring of a Japanese consultant who can collaborate with policy-makers and organizations to develop more robust disaster capacity for animals, through additional funding for the Japan Animal Welfare Society, through support for local veterinarians on the front line of animal rescue and care activities, and through the provision of training as requested by Japanese partners and government agencies.
Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy advisor and special assistant to the CEO/president of The Humane Society of the United States.