Threatened by Quake and Radiation, Japanese Mayor Turns to YouTube For Help

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Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of a devastated town in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture that felt all but forgotten, sent out a digital appeal for aid last month with little hope he would be heard. Turns out the world was listening.

Wasted by the earthquake and the spasms of the sea, the Japanese city of Minamisoma had hardly confronted the wreckage when a nuclear alert was issued. Residents of the town, a mere 15 miles from the site of the Fukushima power plant in crisis, were instructed to remain inside houses or refugee centers. Those who had neither been swept away by the natural disasters nor evacuated now faced a more immediate concern than recovery: starvation. Trucks carrying aid were loath to deliver shipments for fear of radiation.

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It seemed that Minamisoma had been abandoned. Even the reporters had gone, leaving the town to disappear even from the news. In what Sakurai describes as the city’s darkest moment, the mayor turned to the Internet for help. The 11-minute YouTube video that he and a handful of locals shot on a small camcorder, called “S O S from Minamisoma mayor,” went live on March 25 and asks someone, anyone for relief. “I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma city, to help us,” Sakurai pleads in the recording.

Sakurai’s plea was not just heard. As online influencers did what they do best—share stuff—it very quickly resounded across the globe. The YouTube clip has so far been seen by upwards of 200,000 viewers. “Suddenly the world was extending its hand to us,” the mayor told the New York Times. “We learned we’re not alone.”

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The city has received hundreds of packages of food and supplies since the video went viral from individuals and non-profit organizations, bringing the first shreds of optimism to a place still searching for its dead. Inquirers, most of them non-Japanese, continue to call the city government to see how they can pitch in. The denizens of Minamisoma are beginning, slowly, to resume their lives despite the ongoing nuclear catastrophe, and in the meantime they’ve learned the most important lesson of social media: if you call them, sometimes, maybe, they will come.

(More on See TIME’s complete coverage of the crises in Japan.)