News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 11, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Vigo County native helping relief agency provide physical, spiritual aid to Japan in wake of last year’s devastation

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Help can be harder to receive than give.

After arriving last April on the tsunami-wrecked northeast coast of Japan, Vigo County native Ron Keegan and his disaster relief co-workers tried to assess what the local residents needed most. Through interpreters, Keegan simply asked, “How are you doing?”

“And, they’d say, ‘Fine,’ and they’re standing in a pile of rubble that used to be their life,” he recalled.

So Keegan, working for the Christian international relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, pondered and prayed. He chose more specific questions, such as, “When did you last eat?” and “Do you have a place to go to the restroom?” The responses of these victims of unimaginable destruction grew more detailed. Finally, Keegan began saying, “I’ve got volunteers coming. Can you help me find work for them?” And they did.

The Japanese are “incredibly honorable, incredibly honest, hard-working people,” he said last week by telephone from Japan.

Yet, even with that work ethic and prosperity, their nation faces an immense task in recovering from the earthquake and tsunami that struck a year ago today. The quake registered a thunderous 9.0 in magnitude, the world’s fifth-strongest since 1900. It set off tsunami waves that towered 133 feet in some regions and washed six miles inland. An estimated 20,000 people perished, and 125,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant forced an evacuation that has displaced more than 300,000 people. Some cost estimates of those damages surpass $200 billion.

A surreal, horrific scene greeted Keegan when he reached Japan last April 12. A car sat atop a disheveled four-story building. An oceanliner sat on dry ground, almost a mile from the Pacific Ocean shore. Pieces of shredded railroad trestles drooped overhead.

“Of the areas hit by the tsunami, there was almost 100 percent devastation,” said Keegan, whose wife, Beth, joined him in June and serves as manager of finance for Samaritan’s Purse Japan.

The 46-year-old Prairieton resident has seen vast devastation before. Keegan, a heavy equipment operator by trade, spent three months with Samaritan’s Purse in Haiti, clearing rubble and setting up shelters and housing after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake killed more than 300,000 people and flattened almost every structure in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Less than a year later, Keegan was on a plane bound for Japan.

“The death toll [in Japan] wasn’t nearly as high,” he said, “but the devastation was more widespread.”

A primary concern was trying to keep hope from also becoming a casualty. In the hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture — where the Samaritan’s Purse base serves cities such as Sendai, Ishinomaki, Kesennuma and Tome — 20 percent of residents suffer from chronic insomnia, and 5 percent report that a member of their household is battling suicidal thoughts or serious psychiatric problems, according to Time magazine. World Health Organization statistics rank Japan with the world’s fifth-highest suicide rate.

As one of myriad relief agencies assisting the Japanese with the recovery, Samaritan’s Purse came with a mission to provide physical and spiritual aid to the people affected by “3/11,” as its known here. The organization has helped rebuild 325 homes so far, Keegan said, and more than 70,000 support items (such as clothing, heaters and blankets) have been shipped out of the distribution center, where Keegan serves as manager for logistics.

On the spiritual side, the group is trying to “spread the Gospel,” as Keegan put it, in a country where the Shinto and Buddhist religions dominate and Christians account for less than 1 percent of the population. Despite those numbers, Keegan said Samaritan’s Purse’s message is resonating there.

The residents are often surprised that “they don’t have to become Christian to get their house rebuilt,” he said.

In fact, “the Japanese, at first, didn’t understand why we came to help them. They wondered what’s in it for us,” Keegan recalled. “I remember telling them, ‘Because we’re in this together,’ and that shocked them.”

The world gets smaller in times of catastrophe and tragedy. The people of southern Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee seemed like neighbors as they coped with a deadly swath of tornadoes this month. Keegan found the same feeling in working with people in an impoverished nation such as Haiti, and in a thriving economic power such as Japan. Everybody needs help in tough times.

“In any foreign country,” he said, “the people are no different than we are.”

It’s hard to picture Japan’s dilemma happening in Terre Haute, unless the tsunami and earthquake aftermath are viewed on a local basis. In Ishinomaki, a fishing port of 160,000 residents, the tsunami inundation killed 3,000 people. Nearly 29,000 families lost their homes, according to Samaritan’s Purse.

How can someone half-way across the globe ease their predicament? Understanding is a good starting point.

“They’ve lost so many people. They’ve lost so many jobs. They’ve lost their livelihoods,” Keegan said. “So continue prayers for them.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@