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After Deployment: A Conversation with Virginia Task Force 1 About Their Time in Japan – Part 5

Japanese resiliency and comparing one disaster to another

In the final installment of Defense Media Network senior homeland security writer Rich Cooper’s five-part interview with Virginia Task Force 1’s Capt. Joe Knerr and Lt. Rodney Vaughan, the two veteran rescuers reflect on the resiliency of the people of Japan, the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and how their experiences in Japan compare with other disasters to which they have responded.

Rich Cooper: A lot of people have been remarking about how the Japanese people were dealing with this situation, as compared to others. Haiti obviously is a country that does not have a lot of things going for it. It doesn’t have a lot of infrastructure; doesn’t have a stable government; and has had a lot of problems.

Whereas Japan has the longest monarchy on the planet, but a lot of people are marveling at the fact that there was no sort of panic, disruption, and a lot of people are puzzled:  “Why aren’t they rioting?” Did you see a lot of this where you were, this sort of Asian or in this case, Japanese culture of resilience where people were in line for water, they weren’t pushing and shoving each other. They were waiting their turn at grocery stores with no panic buying or looting. Did you see this firsthand?

Capt. Joe Knerr: I was impressed by their response, and I am not talking about the emergency response. We only had a limited focus obviously because of where we were, but they are very … I wouldn’t say proud, they have a proud heritage I guess, so, very orderly.

It was overwhelming to us at times because they were bringing us things, whether it be, “Hey we want to give you, you know, some prepared food of some sort.” They are the ones with the disaster but yet are providing for us. They were very thankful for everything that we’ve done even though, you know, we were in our mind, unable to provide a live rescue. They were thankful that we were there, very appreciative. I don’t even know the proper term. You didn’t have the crime that typically would follow a disaster in most areas, the looting or whatever was not near us where we were in. Everybody was milling about and helping each other out. I was impressed.

Lt. Rodney Vaughan: I got to know the interpreter that we had – who went along with us the entire time that we were there and asked him a lot of questions just to try to get a better feel for it. One of the things I noticed very early on and it is a cultural thing, and I have told this to quite a few people since I’ve gotten back, is that they are some of the most polite and genuine people that I’ve ever met.

They are resilient; they have an unimaginable amount of will power. Always have, and I think that goes back generations with Japanese culture. The other thing is why you are not really seeing a lot of [problems] and we talked about this amongst ourselves, even while we were doing some of the searches, was to realize that this earth quake is nothing new to them. They have been living next to this crack in the ground for centuries, and it is that this type of thing has happened to them before time and time again. They’ve engineered their buildings; they had the most sophisticated alarm systems and tsunami alerting systems in the world. Once they felt that quake, they knew something catastrophic was about to occur, and I think that response saved a lot of lives and it kept a calm nature there because they were prepared for it.

You didn’t see the amount of chaos that you would have seen in some other populations, and you know it’s just not in their nature.

Capt. Knerr: It’s not acceptable, before or after. …

Lt. Vaughan: It’s offering a helping hand. One of the other things that I noticed is their communities. While these were smaller cities, 40, 50 thousand, 80 thousand, population cities that we were searching, there is still a very sense of community. A lot of people have lived there for generations. They were fishing communities, and part of their healing process and this is human nature that you would see people going out and their houses are completely demolished or where it was; they may even just have a pad left or foundation, but they got a shovel and they were shoveling mud off the sidewalk that was where the house once stood. You know, that’s a part of their healing process; it’s human nature. Even though it seems insignificant, and what good is it going to do, it’s their sidewalk.

Cooper: Every deployment is different; you take away something different from it every time. You’ve talked a little bit about Haiti in those conditions. Has Japan changed this team more than any other type of event because you were having so many disasters piling up on one another? Is there anything different about this that will shape the future of this team differently?

Capt. Knerr: Every time we come back we look at the tools we take. I mean that’s one of the things that can be modified easily. You look at the way we function. One of the things which was amazing to me and and we joke around about it, but Haiti was in our back yard, but we weren’t the first team there. We were beaten only by a few minutes by Iceland down there. Internationally we were the first international team to make it to Japan. For us, it is kind of always accepted that if it happens there we probably wouldn’t be able to make it there until day three or more. We were in country within 48 hours.

Cooper: By itself that is an incredible measure an incredible vote of confidence. You were the first called and to be the first ones on the ground.

Capt. Knerr: Well, for us it was nice. For us it was, you get on the plane and you go.  One of the things we always talk about is how can we be more efficient in getting at the door. Whether that’s us going through our check-in process and getting our people together, or through USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] in their assistance in getting transport to where we need to go, and you know they came through. To be in an area that takes, even if we had a direct flight we are looking at 14 to 16 hours, but from take off to landing we are in theater within 24, you know, and to be there within 48 hours of the quake. …

Cooper: In Haiti you were there within 24 hours, or just over 24?

Capt. Knerr: Just over 24, but you know, once again, we are taking about more than a three-, four-hour flight.

Lt. Vaughan: Yes, and you know it also depends on the country you’re going to. I mean, we’re ready, we’re standing ready, we’ve got mobilization orders, we are going through alert and mobilization and that’s just a clearing of our U.S. government, but we still had to wait for that country to accept the help.

Cooper: Well, they need to ask for it.

Lt. Vaughan: They have to ask for it.

Capt. Knerr: And one of the things I think that is starting to happen is that more of the world is becoming aware of the process that has been developed internationally. A lot of different nations have urban search and rescue capability but nobody has ever really known how to ask for them or what you need to do to get them. Some of those assets just deploy.

Interior of house Ofunato

A member of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team pushes aside furniture and rubble while looking for tsunami survivors in Ofunato, Iwate, Japan, March 15, 2011, four days after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami struck northern Japan. Several nations, including the United States, responded to search for missing residents. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew M. Bradley

Cooper: Well, it is a source of national pride here too.

Capt. Knerr: [Laughing] Oh we’ll probably be one of the worst, when the time comes and we have to ask for help.

Cooper:  [Also laughing] Oh we were.  Remember Katrina? I was deployed for that!

Capt. Knerr: We are not good at asking for, or accepting help. The Japanese were very calculated in who they requested to come. Still some self-deployed, and for us it stinks because we’d like to self-deploy at times because we know there is benefit but it’s not our choice.

When you self-deploy you end up putting more burden on an already-affected population.  Or a lot of the teams that do that, they show up, they need supplies immediately, they need the same supplies that the affected population need. So now you are a burden on them, not a help. So to have the discipline to sit and wait is hard at times. And then at times we’re not, we’re not invited.

Lt. Vaughan: The reason I bring that up, is [because] all that affects that clock. The earthquakes happen and regardless of all the red tape, the clock is still ticking whether we are going or not, or whether we are delayed. It all affects that.

Capt. Knerr: Day five [after the event] is our critical day. Day five is all that we look at from the time anything happens until day five. Day seven is ultimately really the drop off, but day five, the chances of survivability if you look at our graph is a cliff.  It goes down gradually but when it gets to day five it just drops. Day seven it’s minimal, anything after that is pretty much minor. So, obviously there is always exceptions to the rule, but that, as a standard it’s pretty accurate. So we are fighting to be able to get in the country that quickly. That is huge for us.

Cooper: Has anyone told you what is going on in Ofunato since you’ve come back?

Capt. Knerr: No. We’re not aware.

Cooper: What about the equipment left behind, what did you guys leave behind?

Capt. Knerr: Well, we left our sleeping bags and cots to provide people that would need those in the shelter. We did leave behind some water resources for local fire departments and it was funny, as we were leaving, the local fire brigade was driving by with the equipment on the back of the truck, already they were passing us so, that was kind of funny to see, but … mostly that was about it.

That was all we left this time, I mean, because once again Japan is very well established and has well-established response capabilities. So it’s not like they needed too much, and quite frankly, I don’t know that they truly needed it but they accepted it because it did take a little bit of burden off of them. I mean here’s a hundred and some cots and sleeping bags, so we can help with the shelter and the local fire brigade could use this equipment.

Cooper: Is there any post event counseling that members get if they want it. You mentioned the eight retrievals [body recoveries] that you had. Obviously that’s difficult on any day, but you’re dealing with a disaster. I assume, if persons wanted, there is a post-event counseling?

Capt. Knerr: We always offer and we will have a [counseling] date set here very shortly, it might be in that package that none of us read.

Lt. Vaughan: Yeah.

Capt. Knerr:  They give us a package as we get home. What they are about to give us is a critical incidence stress debriefing where we come together and you can come in as volunteer and sit down and work with the counselors. We do it as a group – sit down and talk about what you have experienced.

Cooper: What about photos and video? I assume you have some that. What happens to all that stuff?

Capt. Knerr: A lot of us capture our own photos, we take those to a single collection point, they’re provided to USAID because they’re paying our salaries while we are there.  Those are their pictures. They collect the pictures, they see what is approved, and what is not, and we maintain a library …

Cooper: It’s two weeks since the disaster. What are your thoughts? Was it the biggest thing you have ever been to, as far as your team? You guys have been in some real unique spots, was this the biggest thing?

Capt. Knerr: In my opinion I don’t know that you could make a true comparison. I mean, they are all different. I mean they are all different.

Cooper: So if you’ve been to one disaster and you have been to one disaster.

Capt. Knerr: Yeah!  It is. I mean Taiwan, Turkey, all, they were kind of the same. They happened within a couple of months from each other in 1999, and they were very similar in nature, same type of building construction, same type of earthquake. Unfortunately, same death tolls. Those were similar.

Haiti, was a different beast altogether.

Then you throw in the domestic responses, the Pentagon [9/11 attack]. You can’t compare to the Pentagon, that’s a different beast, and the Murrah Building (Oklahoma City, Okla., bombing).

Katrina, the hurricanes we respond to …

I don’t know that you can make a fair comparison.

It’s kind of a combination of a couple of different events, because it is kind of like a hurricane with water damage … it is an earthquake.

We didn’t see a whole lot of earthquake damage because, we saw mostly tsunami damage where we are at, but I don’t know you can compare … it’s definitely unique, and what happened and … So I don’t know that there’s a fair comparison. …

Lt. Vaughan: Yeah, you know it’s looking at it and I mentioned earlier about the fly-over when we first arrived, when we first did that to get a good look.

Cooper: Doing the site assessment …

Lt. Vaughan: Yeah, to get a good aerial view of it, and we saw a few things that stand out. Obviously, the debris that was in the water, but I noticed immediately that the roadways and everything were cleared and that says something about the population, the importance of getting their roads cleared and so forth. You noticed how quickly they were snapping back to certain things and you could see that. You could also see that in comparison to Katrina and the storm surge scenario. While that is widespread, it is focused on where that storm made entry or made landfall.

With the tsunami, it is widespread devastation and that’s exactly what it was. I mean, that entire eastern coastline of Japan sustained damage from that wave coming in, and … catastrophic. I mean, I joke about it with a few guys, as we were going out, said, “That’s a storm surge with a bad attitude.”

Capt. Knerr: Yeah, it is.

Lt. Vaughan: And this is exactly what it is. It comes in with vengeance. Now, we are talking about the comparison to some of the other deployments and everything. Just a little over a year ago in Haiti, it’s completely unique. I mean both [Haiti and Japan] were earthquake scenarios, but Haiti affected a densely populated area with poor building construction and your death toll reflected that.

I mean, everywhere you turned, there were bodies in the street, buildings riddled with bodies, the odor, everything.

I mean I could draw all kinds of scenarios here. Everywhere you stepped, you got accustomed to that while we were there all those days.

You didn’t see that [in Japan]. What you saw was large-scale destruction. We’ll never forget that.

Part 1 – Answering the call

Part 2 – Getting there and finding the unimaginable

Part 3 – Radiation concerns and tsunami survivability

Part 4 – The decision to come home


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...