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Bruins Join Japan Disaster Relief Efforts, Study Abroad Suspended

UCLA professors and campus groups are joining relief efforts, including a pediatrician who is part of a medical team trying to reach the devastated areas, a computer mapping expert who is assembling information to aid U.N. relief workers, and an earthquake engineer who will inspect damaged structures.

By Alison Hewitt for UCLA Today

As the threat of radiation exposure grows in Japan following the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, UC decided to suspend its study-abroad programs in the country and is in the process of evacuating students, including nine UCLA students from Tokyo.

Meanwhile, several UCLA professors and some campus groups are joining relief efforts, including a pediatrician who is part of a medical team trying to reach the devastated areas, a geographic information systems (GIS) expert who is assembling essential information to aid U.N. relief workers, and an earthquake engineering expert who will be headed for Japan to inspect damaged levees and dams in Japan, among other structures.

Late Wednesday, the State Department issued a travel warning recommending that Americans evacuate from Japan. As a result, the UC-wide Education Abroad Program (EAP) suspended its programs in Japan.

“This decision was not taken lightly and it is based on the need to ensure your safety,” said Jean-Xavier Guinard, the program’s executive director, in an e-mail to EAP students. EAP staff in Tokyo and California are helping students travel home, and UCLA staff will assist students to find housing here and help with other academic concerns. “Our thoughts are with the people of Japan in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy,” Guinard added. “Together let us find ways to support them.”

Offering their skills and resources 

Several UCLA professors and groups are offering their assistance as well. Professor Hitoshi Abe, chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design and director of the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, grew up, studied and has an architectural practice in Sendai, the city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. He is putting his expertise in Japanese architecture and building codes to use and identifying rescue and aid organizations that can most directly help the community.

Kozue Shimabukuro

Dr. Kozue Shimabukuro, a UCLA pediatrician and Japanese citizen, had planned to vacation near Tokyo and visit family when the earthquake upturned everything. She immediately reached out to the Japanese government and got approval to join a pediatric disaster relief team, turning her vacation into a medical mission.

“We were called to leave today, but our departure was delayed. There was another explosion at the Fukushima prefecture nuclear power plant,” Shimabukuro wrote in an e-mail to her UCLA colleagues on Tuesday. “Now we are placed ‘on call for duty.’ I have never been on such a stressful call in my life.” Radiation levels are too high for the government to send the medical team north of Tokyo, closer to the Fukushima plant, where residents are being evacuated, she wrote, but added, “Every time bad news strikes, I feel that God called me to be here right now so I can give [the] ‘right care, right now.’ …  I will be hopeful, once I get there I will do everything I can to serve my people, our children, our future.”

On Wednesday, Shimabukuro sounded even less hopeful that the team would move out. “People are in panic, there is no more gasoline, food and water,” she said. Two medical teams that had succeeded in traveling north had to turn back. “They said that there was no food for the medical team for several days, and with today's snow, they couldn't stay any longer. This is just like war, my country is at war with nature.”

Building databases for emergency workers

Hypercities Sendai records real-time collections of geo-located tweets back to the moment the earthquake hit on March 11.

Hypercities Sendai records real-time collections of geo-located tweets back to the moment the earthquake hit on March 11.

Urban Planning Lecturer Yoh Kawano, who also has family in Japan, volunteered to compile essential data to assist United Nations relief workers. Kawano also works in UCLA’s Office of Information Technology as the Campus GIS Coordinator and is a top expert in geographic information systems, so when the United Nations asked its partner, Crisis Commons, to find GIS professionals to gather and sort information, Kawano signed up.

“We take data, overlap it, and look for patterns and do analyses,” Kawano said of his work on interactive maps. “What’s the population of this town? The proximity to the power plant? The closest hospital? The best evacuation point? Our data can serve relief agencies so their first steps are quicker than if they had to gather this information themselves.”

Kawano, who speaks Japanese, has tapped colleagues in Japan to send him vital information from their government contacts, such as census records and maps. He’s also scouring the Internet, translating data in Japanese into English.

Even before volunteering to do GIS work, Kawano’s first step was creating Hypercities Sendai. Hypercities is an ongoing UCLA project run by Professor Todd Presner. With assistance from Kawano and David Shepard, the project’s technical director, Hypercities creates real-time collections of geo-located tweets. Recent projects include other news hotspots, including Hypercities Egypt and Libya. The day after the quake, anyone could go to sendai.hypercities.com to view tweets specifically from the affected areas in Japan.

“Twitter doesn’t map the feeds, so we’ve added a new dimension to following what’s going on by showing where people are speaking from, and we’re also archiving tweets,” Kawano said. Whereas Twitter only searches for tweets that are a few days old, Hypercities tracks tweets back to March 11 at the moment the earthquake happened.

Doing something for Egypt and Libya was one thing, he noted. But, he said, “I’m from Japan. When it’s your home country, it’s different.”

An earthquake expert on alert

Professor Jonathan Stewart, an expert in earthquake engineering, is part of a U.S. team waiting for the radiation threat to subside in order to inspect levees, dams and ports. The Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaisance team, funded by the National Science Foundation, travels to seismic events around the world to learn how and why buildings fail, and how they can be built better.

“We do this routinely, but Japan presents challenges we haven’t seen before, mostly because of the nuclear situation,” Stewart said. “We don’t want to put ourselves or those we’re working with in danger. Normally we’d be there already.”

Once they arrive, they’ll examine the damage to major structures along hundreds of miles of coastline. Because Japan has a high standard for earthquake-safe construction and was subjected to the largest known quake recorded in that country and the fifth largest known worldwide, the engineers will be able to gain invaluable knowledge about how to build in the future, said Stewart, who has surveyed disaster sites around the world, sometimes arriving before government authorities.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘Can we safely enter this structure?’ And we can offer an informal opinion,” Stewart said. “It’s our duty as engineers. If we can help, we will.”

A survivor in Sendai

Alumnus Andrew Ng in happier times. Photos countesy of Ng.

Alumnus Andrew Ng in happier times. Photos countesy of Ng.

Andrew Ng, a 2010 UCLA grad teaching English and learning Japanese in Japan, is engaged in relief work on the frontlines of this disaster. He teaches at a school in Sendai. Countless people are now reading his blog to get his firsthand account of how survivors are coping.

“I was on the first floor of my school talking to my students during clean-up time, when one of them began to shout 'earthquake' in Japanese,” Ng blogged on Tuesday. “Suddenly, doors began to bang back and forth and kids were screaming. The shaking increased in intensity, and I found myself being knocked to the ground.”

Ng and his class fled to an open field, only to hear tsunami warning sirens that sent them rushing back inside the school building despite ground-shaking 4.0 aftershocks.

“While on the fourth floor, I looked out the window and could see water slowly coming in at an alarming rate,” Ng wrote. “I got really scared.”

The field where they had evacuated was soon under water, but the school building remained comparatively safe. The campus has now become a refugee center, where Ng has helped over the last few days to gather blankets, cook and distribute food, and keep conditions at the school tolerable.

Ng and his fellow teachers prepare pots of boiling water outdoors to cook rice for those staying at the school.

Ng and his fellow teachers prepare pots of boiling water outdoors to cook rice for those staying at the school.

“It was our job to help the community as much as possible,” he said of himself and fellow teachers. “This experience has taught me a lot of things. I knew to live life each day, but I think that hits home more than ever.

“If you can, please consider donating to the Red Cross Japan, or any other organization that is helping us survive these rough times,” he urged. “As the ground continues to shake, I hope that life will return to normalcy, and that Sendai and Japan can move on.”

Outreach from campus

Campus groups are collecting donations to help fund American Red Cross relief efforts in Japan. UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union and Japan Student Association took to Bruin Walk this week and will return after spring break to continue their fundraising. For more information, contact Kevin Machino. 

Similarly, the UCLA Anderson Japan America Business Association, USC Marshall School of Business and Pepperdine Graziadio have teamed up and created a website to raise money to help Japan rebuild.

UCLA departments are also stepping up to provide counseling and other assistance.

“We have all been deeply moved by the devastating news coming out of Japan,” wrote Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs, in an e-mail to students. “Those of you with family and friends in the areas severely affected will surely be especially anxious and saddened. It may be difficult for you to stay focused on your academics … We want not only to assure you that our thoughts are with you during this difficult time, but also to offer sources of practical support.”

Students have ready access to counselors and staff at UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services via its website and 24-hour phone line at (310) 825-0768. Advisers are also on hand to assist at the Dashew Center for International Students, the Office of Residential Life, and Student Loan Services.

The UCLA National Center for Child Traumatic Stress is offering online advice in Japanese and English to those who can provide “psychological first aid” to children recovering from earthquakes and tsunamis.

If you're concerned about radiation exposure, UC recommends reading the radiation FAQs from the California Department of Public Health. “At present, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) indicates Japan’s nuclear emergency presents no danger to California,” the site said. “Both federal and state monitoring is ongoing and will be supplemented as needed.”