TOKYO – The head of the American Red Cross, who has visited earthquake zones in Haiti and China, said Thursday that she was overwhelmed by the "miles and miles" of devastation along Japan's tsunami-battered northeastern coast.
"The (power of the) ocean was just furious. Everything we saw was strewn in small pieces," Gail McGovern said in an interview with The Associated Press at the headquarters of the Japanese Red Cross Society. "When you start walking around, you can see a doll or a kid's bicycle or a teacup. It just strikes home that this is so personal."
Wrapping up a four-day visit to Japan, McGovern said the $187 million received in donations and pledges from the American public for tsunami relief is being used initially to buy essential household appliances for people who lost their homes and are now living in temporary housing.
Nearly seven weeks after the March 11 disaster, some 130,000 people are living in evacuation centers, two of which McGovern visited.
So far, nearly 3,000 temporary apartments have been built, with another 17,700 under construction, the prime minister's office said. By the end of August, authorities aim to have built 72,000.
The Japanese Red Cross plans to supply each prefabricated 320-square-foot (30-square-meter) house with six household appliances: a refrigerator, washing machine, rice cooker, microwave, television and electric tea kettle. The project is being funded by contributions from the global Red Cross network.
This will enable people to "get some sense of independence and out of the evacuation centers," said McGovern, who is president and CEO of the American Red Cross.
In the initial relief phase, U.S. donations also helped its Japanese partner provide medical care for thousands of people, relief items like blankets and helped people find missing loved ones.
Reviewing how the U.S. gifts are being spent was a key reason for McGovern's trip. The organization was criticized for its handling of gifts after the 9/11 terror attacks and its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In contrast, though it was by far the leading recipient of American donations for relief efforts after the Haiti quake, it incurred no major criticism for its handling of those funds.
The Japanese Red Cross is tracking funds in this disaster and reporting back to its U.S. partner.
"We are completely committed at the American Red Cross to make sure that they would feel proud about how the money is being spent," McGovern said.
About $100 million of the $187 million pledged has already been collected and sent to the Japanese Red Cross, she said.
The Japanese Red Cross has received donations from around the world totaling $178 million, with more pledged, according to John Sparrow, Asia-Pacific spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
McGovern said other possible projects for American donations are constructing a prefabricated hospital and rebuilding a nursing school that was destroyed by the tsunami.
Overall, the disaster is believed to have killed nearly 26,000 people.