Coping with Disaster and Preparing for the Future: An On-the-Ground View of Japan’s Earthquake Recovery Effort

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11 was perhaps the most widely recorded natural disaster in human history. Images of the combined destructive effects, from the nuclear-power plant crisis to devastated coastal cities, have reached hundreds of millions of people via internet, television and print media. News reportage, while often sensational and at times deleterious to public calm, adequately covered the humanitarian crisis that quickly unfolded and that still persists today in altered manifestations, such as widespread post-traumatic stress syndrome. Rebuilding will take years—and may not even proceed in some places. The Tohoku region, the name for the six northeastern prefectures of Japan’s main island, has been altered permanently.

A disaster of such unprecedented scale demands reflection and now six months after 3/11, two things are starting to emerge: a legacy of what went right in the immediate aftermath, and signs of how the region will (or will not) move forward again.

Devastation in Tohoku

My estimation of the response to the quake and tsunami stems from my time in Tohoku during the critical first few days and weeks of the disaster, first as a fixer and eventually as an aid worker. A fixer is essentially an interpreter who is resourceful and willing to exploit whatever opportunities present themselves to satisfy his employer’s needs—in this case, navigating news teams through an utterly wrecked landscape in blizzard-like conditions where there was no gas, electricity, water or food. Resourcefulness largely depends on knowledge and useful information, which, in times as dire as those, I obtained through fairly reliable local news and conversations with nearly everyone we encountered, often through the fog of northern dialects that even frustrate the comprehension of many Japanese as well. Twitter, too, I admit, was useful.

Information inevitably yields finer information and, together with personal observations in some of the hardest-hit areas, I began to realize that the disaster could easily have taken the lives of far more than the nearly 20,000 victims currently reported. Obviously, preparedness counted for much. One could reasonably argue that no country is better prepared for such a disaster than Japan, with sophisticated earthquake and tsunami warning systems and a public generally cognizant of established emergency procedures in such an event, including having a survival bag and moving to established evacuation areas.

Although some official reports indicate that less than 50 percent of the populace heeded the tsunami warnings, I’m inclined to believe it was much higher. A coroner noted that many of the victims (over 90% died of drowning) were wearing multiple layers of clothing in preparation for potentially cold conditions in evacuation shelters, and had their emergency backpacks on. The question is often asked: why didn’t they run? I stood in the middle of Rikuzentakata, in Iwate prefecture, and scanned the surrounding hills. With the city completely razed except for a few structures, the hills were easy to see and the streets even easier to navigate—but I don’t think I could have run to elevation in time once the tsunami struck. Why didn’t people flee immediately then? Many did, but to places that just weren’t high enough. On the outskirts of Rikuzentakata, I stood on a hill beside the twisted remains of train tracks torn from their ties and took an elevation reading: well over 60 feet above seal level. While trying to ascertain the last known whereabouts of the late American English teacher Monty Dickson, I learned from a survivor that he and dozens of others had assembled in a park–a designated evacuation zone– before fleeing to the third floor of a nearby building. Everyone was washed from the gutted structure and only a few survived. One elderly woman who survived the 1933 tsunami, and whose father lost his siblings in the 1896 tsunami, was sufficiently skeptical. She refused to get out of the car when her husband stopped on the top of a hill, demanding that he drive as far and as high inland as possible.

Those who made it to evacuation shelters—there were over 300,000 of them—faced brutal conditions that were nevertheless mitigated by a number of factors. Media have widely reported on the enormous fortitude of the evacuees. Western media have largely attributed it to some ineffable quality of the Japanese, and domestic media has been more than happy to trumpet this as well. Such claims are specious at best and lead to a kind of essentialism that, when paired with nationalism, has had tragic consequences in the past.

Rather, while Tohoku’s local geographic characteristics helped create disaster on an almost unimaginable scale, I believe that some of the region’s local cultural and social characteristics (which other regions of Japan, especially those outside megacities, would also share) helped sustain the people who survived it. The Tohoku coastal regions have particularly homogenous populations where community structures of power are still intact and traditional values abide, in particular an emphasis on group cohesion, rather than individual needs, and general deference to authority. Neighborhood block organizations retain notable influence and importance, while community centers are still robust hubs of civic involvement. There is, without a doubt, a greater sense of cooperation and fraternity in those provincial towns and cities than in the urban centers that support most of Japan’s population. Such traditional underpinnings of Japanese society have largely eroded in the megacities, where many do not even know their neighbors. After visiting several evacuation centers in Tohoku, I was haunted by the thought that such calm and organization would have quickly unraveled into chaos in a place like Tokyo.

An effective response

I believe that the relief efforts that transpired in Tohoku deserve more praise than criticism, although assessment of local conditions and the timely distribution of emergency supplies like water, food, fuel and medicine could always be improved, as Edano Yukio, former cabinet minister and new minister of trade in the Noda cabinet, later admitted. The Kobe quake of 1995 apparently offered some lessons that Japan didn’t take for granted. In Tohoku in March, Self Defense Forces were mobilized immediately, having been given a mandate after Kobe to do so in quakes of a certain magnitude. Supported by U.S. military forces, the SDF of course conducted search and rescue operations, but, perhaps more importantly, they also rebuilt roads and bridges that allowed medical and supply teams to reach shelters.

The presence of the SDF, combined with police forces from all over Japan, helped calm fears in many shelters that houses and businesses would be looted. I ran into individuals in several towns I passed through who were salvaging what items they could in harsh weather because, some admitted, thieves would come. Although the media downplayed such stories, there was indeed some looting of cash machines, stores and houses, especially in the 20km exclusion zone around Fukushima from which people were forced to evacuate. There were, however, an exponentially larger number of volunteer citizens recovering cash and other valuable items from the wreckage and taking them to appropriate authorities and collection centers.

The reopened roads and reconstructed bridges enabled Red Cross teams to avert greater disaster by delivering aid to shelters that otherwise certainly would have turned into grisly mausoleums. The Red Cross was briefly criticized for not having diverted so many of the funds donated around the world to immediate relief efforts, but it was clear to me from the emergency and evacuation centers I saw that such organized and highly skilled teams were in place and working effectively because of accumulated donations made through the years, not at any specific moment. Red Cross personnel, though overwhelmed, were keeping people alive and working with shelter directors, many of whom had collected data on known medical conditions among those in their care.

The delivery of items less essential than water, rice and fuel for heating– like a change of underwear, sanitary napkins, toothbrushes, diapers, laxatives– generally fell to other aid teams based out of towns further inland which themselves were lacking in vital supplies, including fuel. On March 19, the Libyan conflict erupted as NATO became involved, and major news teams pulled out of Japan. I remained behind to assist aid teams, as well as a few minor news teams concerned with covering the progress of humanitarian aid. Depots for donated items were established in the interior towns, but these quickly filled to the ceiling and did not necessarily meet needs in the shelters. Some of the better organized groups were in contact with others, and established designated evacuation shelters and routes along which they would deliver, to try to avoid overlap. They also gathered lists of needs from the shelters they were servicing, to satisfy on a subsequent delivery. This system seemed to me to be highly effective. In anticipation of a future disaster, community leaders everywhere should consider establishing reciprocal relief networks with leaders from communities well outside their immediate region.

A related problem emerged when businesses and corporations came forward with goods to donate but seemed at a loss as to how to best deploy them to shelters or communities in need. Through business ties, I was able to secure from the general managers of Burton and Keen over ten thousand pairs of boots and shoes which my friend and I picked up from the warehouses and drove to specific shelters that had compiled a list of desired sizes and quantities. Reebok additionally sent shoes when we couldn’t completely fill requests. This was a particularly unusual instance of corporations being able to meet such specific needs so quickly and directly, but I believe this could be achieved on as wide a scale as is necessary in the future by the construction of a digital database that corporations and aid teams alike could access and update.

By early April, the situation in shelters had stabilized dramatically, clean-up crews were already at work, and temporary shelters had started to go up in schoolyards and other safe, flat areas. As with the early aid efforts, NGOs and NPOs assumed a significant role in clean-up, with organizations like Peace Boat and All Hands Volunteers recruiting in impressive numbers from the international community, and a whole range of Japanese organizations moving Japanese volunteers into the region.

Prepare now for a future disaster

Seismologists—and history¬—predict that another massive earthquake will strike Japan at some point in the future, most likely in the Tôkai region south of Tokyo. Such a quake would affect a much more densely populated region and would destroy much more infrastructure than in Tohoku. In addition, some of the local characteristics which helped Tohoku people after the tsunami would be conspicuously absent in Tokyo or other megacities. The populations in shelters or evacuation centers there would not be as locally connected and homogenous as in Tohoku, and therefore would be less inclined to hang together in a time of great suffering. Emergency response planners in the government need to recognize that the overemphasized Japanese spirit of endurance will not save evacuation centers from mayhem in larger cities. Community leaders, perhaps working with local governments, will need to rehabilitate neighborhood organizations and endeavor to strengthen ties among residents—this will of course have many benefits beyond disaster preparation and response. Preparedness at the local level is especially important when considering the likely inability of the central government to respond immediately to a major disaster, as has been demonstrated in the Tohoku disaster.

In addition to wider gaps in income, social status and values, the large urban areas are home to a larger number of foreigners than Tohoku. The inclusion of several expatriate families in evacuation centers¬ would likely prove problematic. With too many foreign media outlets providing inaccurate information and scripting sensational headlines for irresponsible content that consciously excluded a cooler side of the known facts, the dearth of reliable news in the foreign community pitched emotions to levels of hysteria. Revelations of government obfuscation of radiation risks from the Fukushima disaster did little to alleviate this anxiety and reestablish trust. U.S. Ambassador John Roos’ Twitter feeds were the only lifeline for many foreigners, including non-Americans. Rifts between Japanese and the foreign community would have also exacerbated the situation. I believe that a troubling xenophobia persists among many Japanese, and that foreign communities have an ugly tendency toward condescension and disinterest in any kind of local assimilation, much less learning even rudimentary language skills. Tensions in evacuation centers would likely erupt quickly, unlike in Tohoku.

Access to vital information and communication channels is therefore essential. Days after the quake, NHK and several other news outlets in Japan began broadcasting with simultaneous English interpretation which, despite spotty quality, assuaged some of the anxiety among non-Japanese. It should be incumbent on the government to better ensure access to multilingual news feeds from evacuation centers, whether via handheld devices or some other technology, but I suspect the impetus for such necessary change may fall to foreign embassies, which could have qualified interpreters in place during emergencies. Public organizations might even bear some of the responsibility for information dissemination, as when volunteers set up a website that offered translations of public transportation schedules which had been severely disrupted. It seems prudent, however, to have such resources established before any large-scale event. Of course, communications channels must remain effective after a disaster and provide necessary and relevant information to the population, before the language questioned can be considered.

Rebuild for the future

I think it is worth considering the extent of the damage in Tohoku, so as not to underemphasize the importance of clean-up teams nor underestimate just how long rebuilding will take―and to begin to understand the potential scope of a future disaster. I traveled from Hachinohe, one of the northernmost cities to be affected by the tsunami, a couple hundred miles down the coast to some of the hardest hit cities, like Ishinomaki, Kessenuma and Rikuzentakata. The scenes were all too similar: complete destruction where the tsunami reached. What structures remained– and there were very few in some cities– were filled with silt and debris. Entire towns folded in like paper fans in the space of a couple of minutes, and the houses and belongings of those who lived there were washed several miles inland or sucked out to sea. Elderly residents who remembered World War II and the relentless incendiary bombing of Japanese cities described the scenery as nearly identical: absent of almost everything that once stood for civilization.

During too much of this critical period, the central government has been occupied with its own power struggle, one that recently toppled Kan’s government. Beyond the dispatch of Self Defense Forces, the central government’s role in relief operations was never obvious to me. While it will certainly take a greater role in the rebuilding of Tohoku, it seems to me that effective and creative solutions to this great task will continue to come from independent organizations and the private sector, especially influential entrepreneurs.

Already, towns are asking how they will rebuild, not from a financial perspective, but in the interest of making themselves better, especially if that means appealing more to the youth populations that have been leaving in droves over the years for opportunities in bigger cities. I think contests, grants and privately funded initiatives will yield surprising results. Japanese bureaucracy is not known for creativity (a failing common to most bureaucracies), yet the vast challenges of rebuilding and recreating modern cities will require it. Such opportunities for participation and leadership in rebuilding efforts will draw talented, creative and intelligent groups and individuals to the area, and will also likely keep local human resources from migrating elsewhere. To cite an example from another region, major Yokohama businesses have cooperated with local government offices for years in providing grants to small teams to realize successful projects for the enrichment of urban life. Young entrepreneurs have converted unused areas of town into art and small business zones. Meanwhile, TEDxTohoku, a forum designed to stimulate creativity and participation in the rebuilding process, will take place at the end of October and will no doubt showcase an array of progressive ideas that independent teams could potentially implement with government and corporate support.

If local governments really want their young populations to stay, why not ask them what they want? Japanese youth are perhaps the most politically apathetic in the developed world, if voter turnout is any indication, but this tragedy could be an opportunity to change that and involve them in the decision-making process. Local governments may not have the capacity or political will to meet all the demands of rebuilding, but a combination of government, private organizations and forward-looking businesses might. Rebuilding cities that are not mere shells of their former selves but dynamic population centers will likely require close cooperation and coordination from all sides. Small towns in Japan have reinvented themselves before, so such notions are not all quixotic. Yufuin, Zushi, Kamogawa and Niseko, for example, have wholly embraced tourism to retain youth, attract jobs and continue modernizing. Much of the attraction of these towns lies in the vibe and atmosphere created by young business owners.

Of course, some of the old will have to return, too, like fisheries, maybe agriculture. The form they take may ultimately depend on how the central government decides the land and coastline may be resettled and rebuilt, among talk of dramatic rezoning and contingency planning. Somehow, tourism will have to return, both to the region and Japan as a whole.

Rubble tourism has become something of an industry of its own these last few months, and travel companies have even established “clean-up tours” for those who want to volunteer. The curious will always come, especially if there are twisted remnants of the disaster left behind to view, as there probably should be in some areas. But one of the most notable things I saw during my time in Tohoku, even among the devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami, was the stunning geography. Some of those coastal towns were quite beautiful once. They may be again someday and tourists will want to visit. But if they are rebuilt as they were, they will simply be symbols of vulnerability and human folly, erected on the ever-deepening graveyards of past events.

City planners can alter geography only so much to try to prevent future disaster; dredging bays and erecting tsunami walls have limited benefit. It seems prudent to move key infrastructure to safer elevations. Engineers hoping to build structures that better withstand tsunami have some research models among the wreckage, though we know now that higher floors, ideally equipped with minimal evacuation and emergency supplies, will be necessary. Some citizens, inevitably, will want to move back to their land, perhaps thinking, “at least it won’t happen again in my lifetime.” But it could and, for young generations, likely will. Let us hope that next time the lessons will not have been forgotten.