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Exploring the human side of the tragedy in Japan

David McAlvany provides an interesting aside to his usual weekly market commentary. The things that we will spend most (our time) talking about relate to the treasury market, the dollar, the Middle East, Japan and the implications into the financial markets…but we did not want to go past what really is an important element in this, which is the human element – people whose lives were impacted, the families that were impacted, and their culture, which also was impacted…

The human side of tragedy in Japan

Scott McAlvany discusses his on-the-scene rescue experience during the tsunami tragedy in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Seeing the aerial footage of Japan, he recounts the scene that was happening on the ground back then, drawing an analogy to the similar phenomenon in Japan.

(1) We were met with people just walking around in the streets. They didn’t know where to go. Their homes had been destroyed. For all they knew, they had lost all of their family members. Their livelihood, their businesses, had been completely wiped out.

(2) Then you have the other individuals who are still hanging on to some semblance of hope, hoping to find somebody. They don’t know where their father is, they don’t know where their brother, their spouse, or their children are. They have been to the schools, they have been to the workplace, and there is this frantic panic of, “Where are they? Are they alive? Are they lost? Are they going to be found on the beach? Are they going to be found in a car? Under a pile of mud or rubble?”

Some estimates about the movement of water say it can go up to 620 mph. Others said the wave impact is around 500 mph, basically the speed of a jumbo jet. That, in and of itself, is enough to absolutely destroy cities, people, everything.

(3) The scene that we saw in Banda Aceh was of telephone poles twisted around each other, cars wrapped around them, trees broken in half. I mean, just complete and total destruction, the worst of what you would imagine a war scene looking like, and that it is very similar to what’s happened in Japan.
The original estimates were that there were several hundred people who were missing. Then it was several thousand, and then in one town alone, 10,000 people were missing. We are watching a multiplication effect.

What do people go through when they are faced with this kind of stress and strain?

(4) There is a hopelessness. There is an initial stage where you are numb emotionally. You do not exactly know how to respond to a loss of this proportion, whether it is personally, or extended, with other relatives, not immediate family. There is a very numb feeling. You see grieving, you see mourning, but more than anything, you just see confusion.

(5) Your whole life, you go to work, you have your routine, and in a moment, it all changes, and not just in minor ways. Their entire world is flipped upside down. I think trying to navigate the hopelessness, trying to navigate the emotional state of being numb, how you cope with it, you are just in shock. They are emotionally in shock, and I think that will carry on for weeks, and even months, before they are able to gather pieces together and try to make some sense of existing with that.

Scott spent about five days there in Banda Aceh. He was asked if there was any one picture or event or experience that had stuck in his mind and describes what it was like being on the ground.

(6) The first day we were there, the first night, the hospital in Banda Aceh was destroyed, collapsed in the earthquake, and any semblance of any staff people that were alive got wiped out in the tsunami that followed. We were in a makeshift hospital at an old military base, just trying to create some sort of triage system, some semblance of order. People just started flowing into the hospitals.

(7) I was with 36 people who died. Most of those people who died were actually drowning from the mud and the water in their lungs. A very similar situation in Japan, they talk about the mud that gets stirred up and when you are under water you inhale that, and that is the kind of stuff that has to be drained out of your lungs. There has to be certain medical procedures that take place, otherwise we just were not made to live with that in there.

(8) There was a scene where a father had come in with his five-year-old daughter. The father had lost his wife. They had lost their kids. It was just the two of them left, father and daughter. We did everything we could to help the father, but he was drowning. The fluid in his lungs was suffocating him. I remember the five-year-old girl hanging onto the last concrete thing in her life for security. They had lost their home, they had lost their possessions, they had lost everything. I remember when he died, she was laying on her father’s chest and just saying, “Come back, Daddy, come back.”

(9) We took the father out and we placed a sheet over him and took him to a special area, and when we had come back the little girl was gone. I remember asking all the staff where this little girl had gone and they said she was walking around, confused, not saying anything, she had stopped crying, and we just saw her walk out of the hospital and disappear out on the streets.

“That was something I will never forget. I just remember being very moved, very broken. I think that was closest that I could connect emotionally, with the loss that little girl experienced, and then of course, through hundreds and thousands of families and individuals. I know that is a very similar situation in Japan, so my heart goes out to those individuals and that kind of loss.”

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