Disaster Preparedness / Mental Preparation Necessary for Volunteers Helping Reconstruction Efforts in Disaster Areas

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Volunteers clean a house damaged by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake in Anamizu, Ishikawa Prefecture, in February.

When a major disaster occurs, volunteers to support victims during the recovery and reconstruction process are indispensable. Volunteers have been actively involved in the reconstruction efforts in areas affected by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake that occurred on Jan. 1. This page, including the fictitious scenario of Taro, explores the mindset necessary for participating in volunteer work after a major disaster occurs.


Participating in disaster volunteer work

  • Information gathering
  • ● Check the Japan National Council of Social Welfare’s website or other sources for information on recruitment periods and disaster areas

  • Preparation
  • ● Prepare clothes, medicine, health insurance card and other necessities
  • ● Purchase a volunteer insurance policy

  • Activities in disaster-hit areas
  • ● Register at disaster volunteer centers
The Yomiuri Shimbun

“Can I be of any help?”

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Taro, a 20-year-old university student in the Kanto region, was watching TV on his day off. Two months earlier, a major earthquake had struck a distant area, and the TV was showing the condition of the disaster area, still littered with debris. Moved by the plight of the victims still living in evacuation shelters, Taro felt a growing desire to help in some way.

The news reported that volunteers were being recruited for the affected area. “I’m on spring break from university. Maybe there’s something I can do,” Taro thought. He searched online, found a call for volunteers to help with cleanup on site and applied immediately.

Sudden back pain during furniture removal

At the affected area, the volunteer activities in which Taro participated were conducted in groups of five, and he was the youngest member. Confident in his physical strength, Taro took on the task of moving heavy furniture from a damaged house.

Toward the end of the morning’s work, as he was trying to load a large shelf into a pickup truck, he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his back and could not move. A staff member from the local social welfare council who was coordinating the volunteers, took him to a hospital. There, he was diagnosed with severe back strain, forcing him to give up participating in the volunteer work that afternoon. “I had to seek medical care at a hospital in the area I came to help,” Taro thought, overwhelmed with regret.

Revisiting affected area to join activities

Taro visited the affected area again as a volunteer during his summer vacation after learning about activities designed to support community building of temporary housing. He believed his experience in customer service at a restaurant would be useful for this volunteer work.

Taro assisted with hosting chatting sessions over cups of tea at a community center in the temporary housing area. He prepared tea, coffee and snacks, and many elderly people attended these sessions. After chatting, they expressed their gratitude, saying, “It was a relief to talk about my worries.”

Recovery from the disaster seemed far off. Moved by the experience, Taro resolved to return to the place as a volunteer during his next long vacation.

Disaster volunteers, prepare necessary items on your own

The range of work that disaster volunteers engage in is very broad. Removing debris, clearing dirt, helping relocate people, sorting relief goods and distributing cooked meals are among the many jobs that need to be done.

There’s also heavy lifting, desk work, providing emotional support and much more.

Disaster volunteer centers, which are run by municipal social welfare councils, oversee the onboarding of new volunteers.

For new volunteers wanting to lend a hand, it’s important to consider both the situation on the ground and the present demand for volunteers.

The latest information is available on the Japan National Council of Social Welfare’s website or on social media. Calling local government offices and other public entities in disaster-hit areas directly should be avoided.

When participating in relief efforts, a fundamental presupposition is that volunteers will supply their own necessities — in other words, they should be self-sufficient.

Just what items and clothing will be necessary depends on the type of relief effort and the season. For work involving physical labor, for instance, clothing that fully covers the skin is essential.

Because of the risk of secondary disasters, volunteers also need to properly manage their own well-being.

Shingo Kobayashi, a senior official of Peace Boat Disaster Relief, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, said: “Volunteers take on jobs that they aren’t usually doing. I want them to stay conscious of their physical state while they work.”

Preparing for possible accidents by purchasing a volunteer insurance policy before setting out to work is essential. Volunteers can apply for this type of insurance at their local social welfare council.

Empathetic approach

The process after arriving at a disaster-hit area usually begins with volunteers registering at disaster volunteer centers and getting briefed on the details of the relief efforts.

They then move to the sites and start working, which might involve removing damaged furniture, for example.

When the workday is complete, the volunteers report to center staff about the progress of their work and the condition of the surviving victims.

Fuminori Matsuyama, a senior official of the Shinsai ga Tsunagu Zenkoku Network, a Nagoya-based organization connecting nonprofit organizations nationwide, said, “Though volunteers tend to want to get the job done as quickly as possible by doing as much work as possible, it’s important to go at a pace that fits with the surviving victims and is based on their judgments about, for example, what should be prioritized.”

Volunteers must also work in an empathetic way when dealing with the victims and must always be aware that, for example, carelessly calling damaged furniture and belongings “disaster waste” can hurt the victims’ feelings.

Long-term activities

Volunteer activities are divided into three stages: urgent aid, restoration assistance and reconstruction assistance.

In the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, volunteers were not recruited in the initial urgent aid stage due to traffic routes being cut off. Instead, NPOs and others with expertise handled the assistance activities.

Now that relief efforts have shifted into the restoration assistance stage, the Ishikawa prefectural government has been recruiting volunteers from outside the prefecture and dispatching them to disaster-hit areas.

Much of the work involves lugging various items from damaged houses and transporting it to temporary storage sites.

Kobayashi said: “Assistance activities last for a long time. I want people to volunteer depending on the type of work that needs to be done and timing that fits with their schedule.”

A reporter’s call to be prepared for the next major disaster

Yoshimune Numata / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A landslide that blocked a road and also sent debris into the sea in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, is seen from a Yomiuri Shimbun aircraft on Jan. 29.

The terrifying ferocity of the Noto Peninsula Earthquake was clear to see. On Jan. 29, I boarded a Yomiuri Shimbun aircraft and flew toward the peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture to observe from the air the situation in hard-hit locations including the cities of Suzu and Wajima.

Landslides had scarred the hills. Dirt and rocks jolted loose by the shaking had tumbled down and blocked roads. The vivid destruction caused by the earthquake left me speechless.

I had been assigned to write an article on landslide dams, which form when debris from a landslide blocks a stream or river. I was accompanying Susumu Yasuda, a professor emeritus at Tokyo Denki University, who was conducting a survey of the area from the air.

“This really is terrible,” said Yasuda, a leading authority on the research of land disasters involving liquefaction and landslides. The sheer scale of the landslides and the damage they caused seemed to surprise even a professor emeritus who has researched such disasters for half a century.

After completing our flight over the affected areas, I immediately started typing up my article as the aircraft headed home. I avoided using technical terms as much as possible, and instead relied heavily on simpler words that would be easier for the average reader to understand. That’s one core job of a newspaper reporter. However, the words did not flow easily from my fingertips to the computer on my lap, and I struggled to make progress on my article.

Perhaps unable to simply watch on as I toiled to finish a sentence, Yasuda leaned over from his seat alongside me and kindly offered some advice. After I thanked Yasuda for his helpful suggestion, he spoke again. “It really is important that the results and new findings gained from research and surveys are given back to society and become useful for disaster prevention and mitigation,” Yasuda said. “However, it’s also true that this isn’t easy to do. I have high expectations for young reporters such as yourself.”

An article in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s evening edition printed on Jan. 30 about Yasuda’s aerial survey of the disaster-hit region stated there were fears that a “massive aftershock could trigger some dams to collapse.”

March 11 marked 13 years since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Much less time has passed since the Noto Peninsula Earthquake struck on New Year’s Day, and it seems like public interest in disaster prevention is growing. But there are fears that memories of this latest disaster will fade with the passage of time.

Has this article raised the awareness of Yomiuri readers about disaster prevention? Could it perhaps lead to fewer lives being lost in a future disaster? I constantly ask and answer those questions myself as I tenaciously write multiple articles on this issue and urge readers to be prepared for the “next disaster.” Accompanying Yasuda while reporting on the Noto earthquake has renewed my determination to continue this task.