Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake

Kazushige Sado 1)2)
Yumiko Yoshino 2)4)
Atsushi Harata 2)3)4)
Toshikazu Kato 2)4)
1) Sado Eye Clinic
2) Japanese Association for Rehabilitation of the Visually Impaired
3) Japan Guide Dog Association
4) National Committee of Welfare for The Blind in Japan

Ⅰ Purpose

To report on the current state of the disaster area affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and to discuss methods of preparing for future disasters.

Ⅱ Progress


On March 11, 2011, a huge earthquake and enormous tsunami caused severe damage to many coastal areas of Japan.
After the tsunami, about 20,000 people were killed or missing. Many people lost their homes and family members due to the tsunami URL1)2).
Immediately after the disaster, obtaining information was one of the most important factors.

Sighted persons

Many people whose vision was usually corrected (i.e., they coped well) lost their contact lenses (CLs) and/or glasses in the tsunami and then suddenly suffered from poor vision due to this loss.
We started distribution of a one month supply of daily disposable soft CLs to the disaster victims at no charge from March 23. Distribution of free CLs was a very effective method of support. We distributed 12,570 boxes of CLs by the end of May when this program finished.
We also started distribution of glasses at no charge from April 3. Distribution of glasses provided limited support for several reasons, such as delay in starting the program and lack of correction for astigmatism.
Many patients lost their therapeutic eye drops in the tsunami. In the disaster area, there was a shortage of eye drops, so we also distributed eye drops to the disaster victims. Immediately after the disaster, eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis caused by dust were needed more than eye drops for chronic diseases such as glaucoma.

Visually impaired persons

The National Committee of Welfare for The Blind in Japan acquired a list of visually impaired persons. After assessing their safety, we provided information, distributed visual aids, provided a bathing service, and performed other support activities URL3).

Ⅲ Discussion

1) Problems for the visually impaired

a) Problems for the persons themselves

Orientation and mobility: After the earthquake, not only blind persons, but also partially sighted persons and white cane users could not even move indoors because of debris such as broken glass and fallen furniture. They could also not walk outside because the roads were blocked by wreckage of fences and houses (Fig. 1).

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Access to information: After the earthquake, most information was obtained via TV. In disaster broadcasts, most local information was shown as text on the screen and there was no sound!

In the refuges (Fig. 2): There was almost no assistance for the visually impaired. For example, almost all information was posted on the walls of the refuges. However, visually impaired persons would not know that it was posted and therefore could not ask someone to read it. It was also difficult for them to line up, such as when meals were distributed. For privacy, cardboard partitions were used. However, this meant that the visually impaired could not see whether neighbors were sleeping or not and they became less likely to ask for help. On the other hand, many people with acquired visual impairment did not want to admit that they were visually impaired.

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Toileting (the most difficult problem): Usually, visually impaired persons only need to be guided to the toilet. After the earthquake, however, they were suddenly living in the refuges with people from outside their family. Toileting in the refuges was most distressing because they and the other people were not familiar with the conditions. For example, there may have been a step in the toilet and they did not know the shape of the toilet bowl. Because running water and electricity (essential services) were often disrupted, many toilets in the refuges could not be flushed (Fig. 3). Thus, it was impossible to simply pass stools in the toilet. Instead, feces had to be washed away by using water scooped up in a ladle from a bucket without polluting the surroundings. It became even more difficult when they had to separate stools from toilet paper, both of which were put into different plastic bags for disposal. Because the processing of stools became very complicated, they had to ask for assistance in some cases, resulting in problems for human dignity.

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b) Problems for supporters

Searching for visually impaired persons: In the situation where it was difficult to move by car, searching for the visually impaired in refuges scattered over a wide area (500 km or more) was extremely difficult.

Confirming their safety: Because many visually impaired persons were not registered, confirming their safety was difficult. Immediately after the earthquake, the National Committee of Welfare for The Blind in Japan acquired a list of visually impaired persons. However, the available list covered less than 20% of all visually impaired persons and there was no information about more than 80% of them. The Personal Information Protection Law interfered with data acquisition.

Information delivery: After the disaster, it was found that many visually impaired persons did not know about important information like "voice watch" and closed-circuit TV. In Miyagi prefecture, 43% of visually impaired persons who received our support answered that they "did not know about voice watch" and 56% answered that they "did not know about closed-circuit TV" or "had never used closed-circuit TV".

2) Future measures for the visually impaired

a) For the visually impaired themselves

① After a disaster, visually impaired persons cannot escape without assistance from someone else. The evacuation of visually impaired persons depends on guidance from people nearby.

② Spoken information needs to be an essential part of disaster broadcasting. Supplying radios for the visually impaired is required and providing spoken information from local mini-FM stations is also important.

③ Information support for the visually impaired is required immediately after a disaster. Volunteers who can visit and talk with visually impaired persons are necessary. (Volunteers do not need to be experts such as braille instructors or transliteration instructors.)
In order to get help, it is necessary for visually impaired persons to inform those around them that they have impaired vision. For this purpose, vests for visually impaired persons are the best aid to inform others that here is an impaired person who needs help (Fig. 4)

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④ Supporters who guide visually impaired persons to the toilet must inform them of the details about objects in the toilet every time because these may have changed (details such as the location of the toilet paper, bucket, ladle, and so on). It would be desirable to prepare welfare refuges before the next disaster so that visually impaired persons can be admitted on a priority basis.

b) For more effective support

⑤ ⑥ All visually impaired persons should be registered with a government office. The visually impaired should inform their neighbors that help is needed if a disaster occurs.

⑦ The Personal Information Protection Law should be amended to allow for exceptions related to disaster preparation.

⑤⑥⑧ In the event of an emergency, it would be effective if e-mails from government offices were sent to the mobile phones of all registered visually impaired persons. Not only after a disaster, but also in normal times, an information delivery system for the visually impaired is necessary. In normal times also, we believe it would be effective for e-mails with various information to be sent from government offices to the mobile phones of all registered visually impaired persons. This will be training for an emergency when government offices need to send various information to the visually impaired by e-mail.

3) Life and death factors

We investigated the factors that separated life and death by interviewing many visually impaired persons. The main factor was not whether they were lucky or unlucky. The first factor was whether someone asked if they needed assistance, such as Are you OK? The second factor was whether or not they were guided by nearby people.

Ⅳ Conclusion:

When a disaster occurs, information is as important for visually impaired people as it is for the sighted.
Information support for the visually impaired is required immediately after a disaster.
We must make preparations to provide more effective support when future disasters occur.

URL1) 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami ? Wikipedia
URL2) the great east japan earthquake and tsunami 2011
URL3) Japan Guide Dog Association (JGDA) - Sendai Training Center