In the days after a record 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan on March 11, many Church members struggled to find food, clothing and gasoline, or had other difficulties, said Elder Satoshi Nishihara, an Area Seventy and LDS Family Services agency director in Japan, in a telephone interview with the Church News.
“But the members of the Church throughout Japan wanted to come together and help all these people and they provided goods and supplies,” he said.
Most touching, said Elder Nishihara, were the Latter-day Saints living within the disaster zone who “sent supplies to help people in the harder-hit areas.”
The earthquake struck Japan near the city of Sendai and generated a powerful tsunami, which caused widespread destruction to coastal areas and communities.
The quake — the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan — displaced thousands, destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings and left four million people without power. A lack of infrastructure and communication hindered relief efforts. Additionally, the quake damaged the cooling functions at key nuclear plants in northern Japan, triggering fires and radiation leaks.
Almost two weeks after the disaster — which claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people — more than 13,000 people are still missing.
There have been no reports of death or injury to any Church members and all missionaries in Japan are safe and accounted for, according to a Church welfare report. However, in response to radiation danger, the Church moved missionaries from the Sendai and Tokyo missions out of the areas of concern.
President Lee A. Daniels of the Japan Sapporo Mission said those missionaries have been integrated into the missions and are doing well.
In addition, 45 missionaries serving in the country were given early releases and sent home.
Elder Nishihara said responding to the disaster is difficult because “this wasn’t just a simple earthquake and tsunami.” The nuclear plant breakdown, the cold and snow and a lack of gasoline have made things more difficult for the victims, he explained.
Still, he emphasized, “through this experience many people have felt the love of one another and also the love of Jesus Christ.”
Darwin Halvorson, Asia North Area welfare manager, said fuel shortages are an immediate problem in the disaster zone.
These shortages make delivering aid and locating members difficult, he noted.
The Church, he said, has been able to purchase gasoline that will be used by local leaders trying to locate other Latter-day Saints.
In addition, he said the Church has given generous cash donations to the Red Cross and will be distributing more than 15,000 blankets and 15,000 fleece jackets in coming weeks.
And Church members in Japan will be making 20,000 hygiene kits and 20,000 cleaning kits, said Brother Halvorson.
“We have a lot of Church members, a lot of stakes, who are saying, ‘What can we do? We want to be involved.’ “
For example, Japanese members who were victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake filled a truck with supplies just hours after the earthquake March 11. It reached the disaster zone at the same time Elder Nishihara did.
“The general feeling among the members is they want to do something, they want to be helping,” said Brother Halvorson.
He said the damage wreaked by the earthquake and tsunami is devastating. “You are driving and all of sudden you are in a town that looks like it has been in some kind of Holocaust.”
Members, he said, “are trying to be brave, trying to be courageous.” Visits from the Asia North Area Presidency the weekend of March 20 lifted spirits, he said.
“The members I have met are grateful to be alive,” he said.
Many attended Church meetings Sunday, a great sacrifice for those who have to travel a great distance without public transportation and with limited fuel. “A lot of tears were shed, and there were happy tears. They were happy to be able to be together with a General Authority. Happy to be encouraged.”
Elder Conan Grames, area director of public affairs, said he met one couple who came to the Nagamachi Ward of the Sendai Japan Stake to help unload blankets.
“They put on vests and were helping out,” he said. “Their house was completely destroyed by the tsunami. They had to move in with elderly parents.”
Elder Grames said their response represents a common theme among disaster victims. “They said, ‘We just wanted to do something for other people.’ Those who are impacted the most have stepped up to help other people around them. They have a great empathy for what is going on.”