By Steve Eaton
USU student Brett Stevenson was in Japan on March 11, 2011, when the catastrophic earthquakes and tsunami hit. It was three unstable days before he could leave and come back to Utah State University. And yet, it was not long after he arrived in Utah that he decided he needed to return.
The devastation in Japan was not an abstract calamity for Brett. Even though he was watching from thousands of miles away, he said the suffering he saw was very close to his heart.
Brett had first gone to Japan in 2004 when his father, Gary E. Stevenson, was called to serve there as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brett was then called to serve a mission in Southern Japan in 2008, and while he was in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, where LDS missionaries are prepped for their service, his father was called to move back to Tokyo to serve as a full-time leader, or “general authority,” for the LDS Church in the Asia North Area.
Brett had been visiting his parents for spring break and was on a boat near Tokyo taking a tour when the earthquake hit near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. He said he did not feel the initial 9.0 quake, but there were more than 200 earthquakes over 5.0 which he felt over the course of the next few days. The United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program ranked the 9.0 quake the fourth worst earthquake since 1900, but that was just one of more than 1,000 earthquakes that hit Japan in March of 2012.
“For the next three days it was non-stop shaking,” Brett said. “We never stopped moving.”
Despite that experience, Brett, a Huntsman student majoring in economics, soon set up a six-week internship so he could go back and volunteer on the front lines of the relief efforts. He would also work with a key group of LDS Church and business leaders who organized relief efforts. He returned with roommate Ryan Neeley, a USU student majoring in public relations.
The fact that Brett could speak fluent Japanese made his contributions valuable, according to Yayoi Tonami, a Helping Hands volunteer coordinator who worked with Brett. Brett said he and Ryan became guides for church volunteer groups who came to help in Sendai, one of the hardest hit areas. She said his upbeat attitude lifted her spirits as she too dealt with the impact of the quakes.
“He was very, very helpful,” she said. “He was so willing to help us out.”
Elder Gary Stevenson said when there is a disaster and the LDS Church sends assistance, it sometimes works in tandem with other non-profits or under the umbrella of other organizations which have an established presence in the area.
“Really, the objective is to find a way to help the people in need in the fastest and most efficient way possible,” he said.
In this case, LDS Church members and missionaries offered more than 25,000 volunteer days of service, he said. The LDS Church also helped by doing things such as purchasing large ice machines to help the fishermen get back on their feet. A report put out by the Civil Society Monitor said “Latter-day Saint Charities” are credited with donating $13 million to the relief efforts, ranking the Utah-based church number five on the list of contributing organizations.
Brett said in one area he worked with a local church leader who made arrangements to bring in a truck load of food to people in need. He said he would help people carry food from the distribution point back to their cars and their homes. In almost every case, the people he helped had lost either their homes or family members or both.
“There was no fighting, no rioting,” Brett said. “People were getting food for their neighbors. They were taking less than they needed so other people could have food. It was all a combined effort. There wasn’t the pandemonium or the craziness that you would imagine.”
Brett said it was an experience that changed his life and brought it into perspective.
“It just made it really emotional,” he said. “There were multiple times when I was walking back from their car to where we were passing out the food and I was just crying. I was walking back in tears.”
Takashi Wada, the director of temporal affairs for the Asia North Area, held a similar position for the LDS Church that had him coordinating relief efforts when wildfires impacted southern California. He said nothing could have prepared him for what happened in Japan. He said more than 16,000 people died, and 1.1 million homes and 4,000 roads were damaged or destroyed.
Mr. Wada recruited key church and business leaders from Japan to serve on a “humanitarian advisory committee” to determine the best way to help people. Brett was asked to be on that committee and was able to witness first-hand the creation of an organization that had to coordinate with multiple governmental and non-profit organizations to help people in a crisis situation.