Ken Isaacs, head of the Samaritan's Purse disaster response team in Japan, had a dwindling warehouse of supplies - what remained of a 96-ton load the group had airlifted to Japan. He would be reordering soon, and he needed the latest intelligence.
In the group's borrowed warehouse on the edge of Sendai, a truck driver, fresh from delivering aid to devastated coastal villages, pointed out pockets of need to Isaacs on a massive wall map. Isaacs, vice president of programs for the Boone-based aid organization, asked about the survivors' enthusiasm for the various products.
Don't send more blankets, the man advised.
"Blankets were needed the first few days," said the driver, a local Christian named Thomas Broman. "By now, if people stayed alive, it's because they stayed warm."
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One big need: Large cups and spoons for eating.
Isaacs winced. He could have brought kits of aluminum kitchenware to Japan, but he thought they were too basic for such a developed country.
"I didn't think they would be accepted," he said, twice.
Jesus and the Buddhists
Isaacs, 58, is like a buyer for a department store, only instead of forecasting which styles will be hot next season, he has to predict what people on the edge of survival will want three weeks down the road as their recovery progresses.
It's a tricky job, he said. In an undeveloped country such as Haiti, the needs are vast and will remain so for a long time after a disaster. In Japan, the situation changes daily as the country gradually fixes its substantial infrastructure. You have to anticipate, he says. If you wait for certainty, you'll be too late. "At some point you have to pull the trigger and start packing the airplane," he said.
Samaritan's Purse is an evangelical Christian charity that supplies emergency relief around the world. It raises and spends about $310 million a year. It has won top marks for efficiency from Charity Navigator, a group that rates nonprofits, even while paying its CEO and president, Franklin Graham, salary and benefits totaling $616,000 in 2009.
Isaacs earned about $240,000 from the charity that year, according to IRS documents.
Graham also spent the weekend in Japan, meeting with Christian pastors in Tokyo, working with Samaritan's Purse staffers in the country and viewing areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The Samaritan's Purse website, with heavy emphasis on the group's evangelism, recently featured one of its Japanese supporters saying "Jesus is the only hope" for the Japanese people in the aftermath of the disaster. It's a controversial statement to make in a country that is predominantly Buddhist - less than 1 percent of the population is Christian.
When asked, Isaacs didn't directly say whether he thought Japan's recovery depended on its people becoming Christian. He said he isn't in Japan to preach.
His calling as a Christian, he said, is to help people in crisis. "We never hide who we are (as Christians), but we're actually professionals," he said.
He has a saying for it: "The quality of our work is the platform of our witness."
Samaritan's Purse expects its Japan operation to last as long as a year and cost more than $8 million.
A life of helping
One day last week, Isaacs drove to Ishinomaki, a fishing and tourism town that looked as though it had been put through a blender. A 32-foot cabin cruiser had run aground at a traffic light. A fleet of cars had washed up in a graveyard. Isaacs had come here, 25 miles north of Sendai, for two reasons: to recharge his own empathy, and to help him forecast the need. This place was destroyed, but not wiped off the map, so its survivors were ahead of the recovery curve, he figured.
He drove down streets where it appeared people were taking everything they owned - cabinets, televisions, toys, bicycles - and dumping it.
"I hate floods," he said.
He and his wife, Carolyn, suffered a flash flood in Boone early in their 40-year marriage. The Red Cross gave him $400 on the spot. "I was so surprised that anyone would help me," he said.
The episode, he said, is not what launched his work in disaster relief. That career path - which has taken him from Ethiopia and Somalia to El Salvador, to Bosnia, Sudan and Afghanistan - started in the late 1980s, after he met Franklin Graham in Boone. But he knows the value of being helped.
"I never forgot the $400," he said. "Never."
Isaacs, a Virginia native, grew up in Boone. The couple has two sons - one a Marine captain serving in Okinawa; the other a humanitarian worker.
In 2004, Isaacs went to work for the federal government, as director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. That agency took the lead for U.S. government relief responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005 Pakistan earthquake.
Walking amid the wreckage of Ishinomaki, Isaacs watched people scrape at the foul-smelling sludge that carpeted the area. They could use wheelbarrows, he noted. Flat-head shovels. Work gloves.
Then, in the ruins of a small amusement park, he stopped to talk to a local man, the owner of an electronics store. Sato Hidehiro said he had been going by bike to check on his customers and to hand out batteries.
"Everyone wants batteries," the shopkeeper said.
Isaacs seized on the detail: "What size?"
Want to help?
Among the groups working to help after the disaster in Japan:
Samaritan's Purse, www .samaritanspurse .org
N.C. Japan Center's Project Kokoro, www .projectkokoro .org
Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund, www .globalgiving .org
Direct Relief International, www .directrelief .org
International Fund for Animal Welfare, www .ifaw .org
News researcher Brooke Cain