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Japan tsunami: the untold success story

Q & A with Malka Older, Mercy Corps' leader of relief efforts in Japan.
Japan ishinomaki medical center 2011 06 16Enlarge
Earthquake victims wait for medical care at the Ishinomaki hospital, March 28, 2011 in Ishinomaki, Japan. (Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images)

The nuclear catastrophe aside, there is actually a tale of success to be told in the wake of Japan's tsunami.

At least according to Malka Older, an aid worker with Mercy Corps.

"What they got wrong on nuclear, they got right on natural disaster," Older said in a recent interview.

Older, who previously worked in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, has been leading relief efforts for Mercy Corps in four affected Japanese towns in Iwate prefecture: Minamisanriku, Kessennuma, Rikuzentakata and Ofunato.

GlobalPost sat down with her while she was home in Boston on leave this week. Here is what she had to say about how the Japanese government churns out prefab houses, the surprising things they put inside them and why Japan's love of hand sanitizer is a blessing in disguise.

What are the stories that aren't being told about what's going on in Japan?

What struck me the most was how well prepared Japan was for the earthquake and tsunami. It obviously wasn't enough, especially in terms of the nuclear disaster, but what they did to prepare for the earthquake and tsunami worked. The scale, the number of people who died is terrible [about 15,000 are confirmed dead, with another 8,000 missing and presumed so] but it was far fewer than it might have been.

It's tricky to compare disasters, but if you look at the earthquake in Aceh [Indonesia] in 2004, it was comparable to the one in Japan in terms of magnitude and its proximity to populated areas. The death toll there was 170,000. If you take in the total areas affected in Asia and elsewhere, it's more like 230,000.

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