Japan Red Cross struggling to hand out record donations

By Yoko Kubota

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Japanese Red Cross has $1.6 billion in donations from the public in the month after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, the most it has been given for any relief campaign, but the charity is struggling to get the cash to the neediest.

March 11’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the giant tsunami and nuclear crisis that followed left more than 27,600 dead or missing, sent 163,000 people into shelters, and destroyed infrastructure in the north of the country.

This loss of organization is complicating the relief effort.

“Donors must feel that their money should be distributed quickly for those who do not have anything to eat and who lost everything,” said Tadateru Konoe, president of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

“But … local governments are not functioning, evacuees are placed in various shelters and technically speaking, a fair distribution among such people is very difficult,” Konoe told Reuters in an interview.

The 140 billion yen ($1.6 billion) of relief money is meant to be handed to disaster victims in cash. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the initial round of cash handouts was made within about two weeks of the disaster.

This time, deciding how to split the relief money is more difficult as the affected areas span a wide region meaning several authorities and agencies are involved, and many of the local governments that would normally provide information on damages have been crippled.

“This is a big challenge and it is not something that we can resolve on our own,” Konoe said. “Fairness and speediness do not go together easily.”

The government must play a role in coordinating relief money distribution and will also start accepting donations from the public, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said this week.

The Japanese Red Cross, with local governments and other agencies, will form as early as this week a committee to decide how to split the cash, Konoe said.

One possibility for the initial handout is to give money to people in evacuation centers, he said, though he did not give specifics on when or to whom the money would be distributed.

The organization will also receive relief money from Red Cross groups around the world though that amount is yet to be set, said Konoe, who is also the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


Recovering from the natural disaster will require the country’s biggest reconstruction effort since World War Two. The government expects material damages to cost up to $300 billion.

While work is done to repair basic infrastructure such as electricity and water in the quake-struck north, conditions in evacuation centers are “chronically difficult,” and evacuees are at risk of major health problems, Konoe said.

“Hygiene conditions are not good and physical strength of evacuees are worsening because of the cold weather and stress. Various problems will emerge if such conditions last for a long time.”

Risk of infectious diseases such as influenza and norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting, are rising, while some evacuees have been diagnosed with pneumonia after living in the cold, he said.

The destruction of medical infrastructure in the region, including private practices and hospitals, is making health problems more difficult to deal with, and the Red Cross will continue to provide medical services in the area, Konoe said.

In addition to huge damages from the earthquake and the tsunami, Japan continues to struggle to contain a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

The Japanese Red Cross, which has treated atomic bomb survivors in its hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is also ready to provide medical services should there be further emergencies at the nuclear complex, Konoe said.

($1 = 85.475 Japanese Yen)

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

Japan Red Cross struggling to hand out record donations