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Doctors, aid workers and rescue dogs get to work in Japan

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Japan's recovery will take years
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. search and rescue teams head out by convoy to hard-hit Ofunato
  • NEW: USAID is coordinating the American response to the disaster
  • A U.S. responder says he's worried about radiation
  • The U.S. is also sending nuclear experts to assist Japanese governments

(CNN) -- A massive emergency response operation is underway in northern Japan, with world governments and international aid groups coming together to bring relief to the beleaguered island nation..

Sixty-nine governments have offered to help with search and rescue, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Japanese government has received eleven Urban Search and Rescue teams (USAR), the group said in a situation report, including teams from the U.S., South Korea, Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, China, Hungary, Singapore and the U.K.

Japan's own USAR team was in New Zealand, assisting with recovery from the recent Christchurch earthquake, when the quake and tsunami struck Japan on Friday.

Two USAR teams from the U.S. are in Japan and have set off on their first assignment to the city of Ofunato, severely damaged in the quake. Nearly 150 people and 12 dogs trained to detect live victims arrived in Japan late Sunday night, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Inspector, Don Kunitomi. Hailing from Los Angeles and Fairfax county, Virginia, the teams are the only two in the U.S. qualified to respond to disasters on such a scale, according to Kunitomi.

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"There are a lot hazards that have never been experienced by a search-and-rescue team," Kunitomi told CNN. "There's this radiation factor. We do have radiation equipment ... but no one has ever really experienced this."

"It looks like it'll be part Katrina because of the flooding and part New Zealand because of the earthquake," he continued, referring to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and last year's earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The teams are expecting the journey to take roughly six hours. They're traveling in a convoy of two buses, several flatbed trailers, and half a dozen utility vehicles.

A 15-member Chinese search and rescue team has already begun work in Ofunato, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency. The group brought four tons of material and equipment and is expected to work in the area for seven to ten days, said the agency.

A British search-and-rescue team comprising 63 fire service search-and-rescue specialists, two dogs and a medical support team is in Japan as well, the UK foreign office said Sunday. The group has some 11 metric tons of rescue equipment, including heavy lifting and cutting equipment to extract people trapped in debris, the government said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is coordinating the overall American response to the quake and tsunami, according to a statement from the White House Press Secretary. A disaster declaration has opened up $100,000 in immediate funding from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the statement said, and the group has set up teams in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo to coordinate operations.

The U.S. is also sending experts from the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to offer technical assistance to the Japanese government, according to the White House statement.

On Sunday, the USS Ronald Reagan started delivering aid in the coastal regions of Japan's Miyagi prefecture.

Crew members, in conjunction with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces, conducted 20 sorties delivering aid pallets. Eight U.S. and Japanese helicopters were used to distribute the pallets, according to Sgt. Maj. Stephen Valley of U.S. Forces Japan.

The team hopes to deliver 30,000 portions of emergency food rations in this initial operation, Kyodo reported.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's Incident and Emergency Centre has offered technical assistance to Japan in the wake of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The government has evacuated more than 200,000 residents from homes close to the plant and tested 160 people for radiation exposure, authorities said Sunday.

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In addition to the response from world governments, humanitarian assistance groups have sent teams to hard-hit areas across Japan.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) has 62 teams in-country providing assistance, according to a United Nations situation report. THe ICRC has deployed 187 Disaster Medical Teams, with another 111 teams on the way.

A Red Cross hospital in the city of Ishinomaki, which was engulfed by the tsunami, is the primary medical facility providing health care survices in the area, according to the ICRC's Patrick Fuller. He says the focus is very much on search and rescue at the moment, adding that the group is particularly concerned about Japan's large population of elderly people who are vulnerable to hypothermia.

The World Health Organization has alerted its network of health experts who specialize in nuclear-related disasters, according to a news release. The Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance Network (REMPAN) is now on standby, ready to assist if requested by Japanese authorities. REMPAN is made of representatives from more than 40 institutions with expertise in radiation emergency medicine, public heath interventions and long-term follow-up.

Mercy Corps International teamed with Peace Winds Japan to rush aid to affected regions. On Sunday, Peace Winds conducted assessments in two northeastern cities, Ishimaki and Kesennuma, according to a statement on Mercy Corps website. On Monday, the group will use helicopters to bring in 30 family-sized tents, plus materials to construct a 100-person balloon shelter. Peace Winds already has expert responders on their way to remote areas of northern Japan, where they plan to distribute large emergency tents, water, food and blankets, according to Mercy Corps' website.

The two groups are working to deliver other essential items that are in short supply.

Mercy Corps is also taking steps to make its Comfort for Kids program available in Japan, the group's website says. Comfort for Kids provides post-trauma assistance for children and caregivers. The group has worked in New York after the September 11 terror attacks, in China after the powerful 2008 earthquake and in Haiti after the devastating quake there in 2010.

Doctors Without Borders has a 10-member team working in Miyagi Prefecture, assisting "in the massive government-led relief effort."

"On Sunday, we conducted mobile clinics and assessments in two evacuation centers," team coordinator Mikiko Dotsu said in a news release. "It appears that medical needs are increasing in evacuation centers."

Additional personnel will join the group Monday, which will then split in two to cover more ground. The teams will begin working there way into more remote areas, focusing particularly on the needs of vulnerable populations like elderly people and young children.

Stephen McDonald of Save the Children told CNN Sunday his group had multiple teams in the country, reaching out to families left homeless. There are water shortages at evacuation centers, creating hygiene challenges, he said.

Children are distressed and shaken by the many aftershocks, and unable to rest at the cramped evacuation sites. "In many cases, they've lost their homes. Some have lost family members," he said.

CNN's Nick Valencia, Kim Hutcherson, Brian Walker, Michael Martinez and Sarita Harilela contributed to this report.

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