Looking Back at USAID’s Response to Japan’s Triple Disaster

Ten years ago, the tectonic plates off the eastern coast of Japan shifted with a force so great, it moved the coastline of the country and changed the balance of the planet. The earthquake also set into motion a tsunami with waves several stories high that engulfed entire towns, took the lives of more than 20,000 people, and caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. See how USAID responded.

USAID deployed a massive Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to Japan to coordinate the U.S. Government’s response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/ U.S. Air Force

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, Sarah Potts was actually in a plane over the Pacific Ocean, flying home from Christchurch, New Zealand, where she had been a part of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that responded to a devastating earthquake that had struck there two-and-a-half weeks earlier.

“As soon as we landed in Los Angeles, I turned on my phone and started getting alerts and messages about Japan,” Potts said. “I knew immediately that I would not be going home to D.C.”

Her teammate, Greg Short — an Urban Search and Rescue member based in Los Angeles— had also served on the USAID DART in New Zealand. He had arrived home only a few hours earlier and was getting ready for bed as his wife watched the 10 p.m. news.

“That’s when we first heard about the tsunami,” Short said. “I remember reassuring my wife I was not going anywhere and hoping that it wasn’t that bad. I was wrong on both accounts.”

USAID’s Urban Search and Rescue teams arrive at Misawa Air Base, Japan after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit 100 miles off the coast. Photo credits: Staff Sgt. Marie Brown / U.S. Air Force

On March 11, 2011, at Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security
Administration (DOE/NNSA) headquarters in Washington D.C., the Nuclear Incident Team, including Alan Remick and Dr. Dan Blumenthal, closely tracked the unfolding situation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The next morning, Remick was on his way to Tokyo, and Blumenthal flew to NNSA’s Nevada National Security Site near in Las Vegas to assemble a team of experts who would also be heading to Japan to assess and interpret the consequences of the release from the Fukushima power plant.

The triple disaster in Japan required the mobilization of a massive DART that brought together more than 150 people, including USAID disaster experts and Urban Search and Rescue teams from Fairfax County, Virginia, and Los Angeles County in California. Also, for the first time ever, the DART included members of the Department of Energy. A decade after responding to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan, the memories still remain fresh for some DART members.

The Great East Japan Earthquake — the name given to the event by the Japanese government — triggered an enormous tsunami that flooded more than 200 square miles of coastal land. An estimated 500,000 people were forced to evacuate. Photo credit: LA County Fire and Rescue for USAID

Dr. Dan Blumenthal, National Nuclear Security Administration

“This was a once-in-a-generation black swan event. While it is something we train for at NNSA, it’s something we hope to never have to do.

When we deployed, we literally brought every tool we had in our toolbox with us: 17,000 pounds and 5 pallets of equipment from Nellis Air Force Base, including generators, radiation detectors, and a satellite dish.”

Using specialized radiation detection systems mounted in aircraft, the Department of Energy was able to provide real-time measurements of ground contamination and create maps, like this one. Map courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy

“Our job was to figure out where the radioactive material was sitting, what kind it was, and how much. You could see where the tsunami went and all the wreckage it left, but you couldn’t see how extensive the radioactive contamination was. Sure, you could walk around with a survey meter, but that was like looking at things through a microscope. Our teams were able to survey and map the entire area rapidly and safely using radiation detectors mounted inside aircraft.”

The Department of Energy was tasked with measuring and mapping radioactive material. To do this, radiation detection equipment was installed in an UH-1 helicopter and flown around Fukushima Daiichi power plant to detect and map ground contamination. Photos courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy

Alan Remick, National Nuclear Security Administration (retired)

“The Department of Energy had never deployed anyone as part of a USAID DART before; it was the first time we had ever done anything like this. Radiation complicates everything and requires you to ask a lot of questions that you wouldn’t ask during other types of emergencies.

As a result of this experience and what we learned, DOE and USAID now have a closer relationship, and we’ve developed training and exercises that we do together. A response to a nuclear incident is never going to be pretty, but it can always be better. Our teams have a lot of capabilities, and we spend a lot of time training. Having members of the DART know how our capabilities can be used to help the response is an extremely important part of the process.”

Raul Perla, Fairfax County, Va. Task Force 1, Urban Search and Rescue

“We deployed to Japan with what is considered to be a heavy team: 74 Urban Search and Rescue people from Fairfax and 74 from L.A.

Our primary goal was to search in the areas hit by the tsunami. In every building that we enter, we hope to find someone. If we don’t, we move to the next site, and then the next site. It’s a very powerful feeling, the adrenaline kicks in, and it keeps you going. If it’s cold, like it was in Japan, it doesn’t matter, you don’t feel it. You are constantly moving, searching, anticipating that you will find someone.”

A USAID Urban Search and Rescue team member searches for survivors inside a destroyed building in the city of Ofunato. Photo credit: Nicholas KAMM / AFP

“The only buildings that were left standing in that area were the concrete buildings. The wooden buildings looked like a lumberyard. Unfortunately, because this was a tsunami, you aren’t likely to have live rescues. That was the case here. So then, we assisted with whatever we could. We asked the local town managers what we could do to help. We did structure analysis and surveyed hospitals, bridges, and schools to see if they were safe to go into.”

Members of the USAID DART from Fairfax County, Va. Task Force 1 search structures and debris in Kamaishi, Japan on March 16, 2011. After a long day, the Search and Rescue members are bussed to their base camp. Photos credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock / U.S. Air Force (top); Nicholas Kamm / AFP (middle left); Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock / U.S. Air Force (middle right and bottom)

Greg Short, LA County Fire Department, Urban Search and Rescue

“Events like this really puts into perspective how powerful our earth is — to see the water levels reach the 4th and 5th story of buildings, and boats on top of 2 story houses. The devastation was very dramatic. Imagine all your belongings and all your neighbors’ belongings put into a blender, turned on high, and then thrown out over your city. That’s what it looked like.

Deploying internationally like this is very unique, and I feel very lucky to get to do it. Most firefighters in the U.S. are responsible for a city, town, or county. But as a part of USAID’s Urban Search and Rescue teams, we are lucky to get to respond and help people not only in our country, but throughout the world. To be good at this, you have to have that ability to think outside of the box. We deploy with limited supplies, and everyone has to come together to get the job done. There are no lone rangers here.”

Members of the USAID DART with LA County Fire Department search through the wreckage and survey tsunami damage in the devastated city of Ofunato. “Every deployment is different and it involves a lot of logistics. We carry a lot of equipment and we come with a lot of people,” Greg Short, LA County Fire Department. Photo credits: LA County Fire Department (top); Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP (middle left); Alfred Nakatsuma / USAID (middle right); Photo credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force (bottom)

Sarah Potts, USAID Response Team

“With this response, like many of the others I’ve been on, many expect disasters to bring out the worst in people. But I found the opposite to be true: These situations often bring out the very best in people. It was really great to see how the local communities pulled together to help each other out.”

A local Japanese woman thanks a USAID DART search and rescue team member with Fairfax County, Va. Task Force 1 while he was searching structures and debris on March 17, 2011, in Unosumai, Japan. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock / U.S. Air Force

“Even though these communities were severely impacted, they went out of their way to thank us. I remember they made traditional seaweed covered rice balls for the team to express thanks for the work we were doing. I will never forget that.”

The tsunami flattened towns, uprooted homes, and spread debris over hundreds of miles. The Hamayuri, a catamaran sightseeing boat, landed atop a two-story Japanese inn building in Otsuchi town. Community members stand in line with their containers to receive water in Ofunato, Japan. Photo credits: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP (top left); Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP (top right); Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock / U.S. Air Force (bottom)

The USAID DART remained deployed to Japan for nearly two months, during which Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) members worked alongside their Japanese USAR counterparts in support of the Japanese government’s rescue and recovery efforts. In total, the United States — through USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense — provided more than $94 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In the 10 years since the triple disaster, the relationship between the United States and Japan has strengthened, especially in the area of disaster response. After a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico on September 19, 2017, both USAID and Japanese USAR Teams deployed to Mexico City and were reunited on the rubble piles — working side-by-side to find survivors — just like they did a decade ago.

After a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico on September 19, 2017, members of the USAID DART Urban Search and Rescue team worked with their Japanese USAR counterparts to find survivors. Photo credits: Alison Harding / USAID

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