Japan’s Response to Disaster – One Former FEMA Staffer’s Perspective

It is not often that a FEMA person can be this candid about a country’s response capabilities; in fact, about the only way to do it is to be retired!  Long-time employee and long-time critic of FEMA, Leo Bosner, wrote this account recently: Can Japan Respond Better to its Next Large Disaster? [Published in japanfocus.org; no date.] In this 10 page article, he lists 10 problem areas and also offers some suggestions to the Japanese government. From his introduction:

Having worked for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for nearly thirty years, the subject of my fellowship was Japan’s response to a large-scale disaster, and whether it could be improved. Under it, I interviewed individuals who were involved in or were familiar with the response to the March 11, 2011 earthquake/tsunami disaster in eastern Japan and lectured on local-level disaster response planning. * * * I focused on the overall response to the earthquake/ tsunami.

First and foremost, it was clear to me that the Government of Japan simply does not have a comprehensive, realistic plan for responding to large disasters. Rather, the Japan Government’s disaster response plan seems to consist of numerous government agency plans that are unrelated to each other. In many cases these plans failed to address or even acknowledge problems that were occurring in the field. In part, this is because the government lacks trained, experienced disaster response professionals. As a result, the government’s response to the March 11 disaster was poorly managed and coordinated, and many people suffered needlessly. * * *

Note that Bosner also has some harsh words for his former employer and comments on the state of FEMA at the time of Hurricane Katrina. See Bosner’s reply in the Comments section.

2 thoughts on “Japan’s Response to Disaster – One Former FEMA Staffer’s Perspective

  1. Thanks for writing in and clarifying. It is hard to do justice to 10 pages in just a few paragraphs. I hope to hear from readers- and hope they ready the whole article!

  2. Thank you for citing my Japan study in Recovery Diva. But I should mention that in my report, before going into the shortfalls of Japan’s disaster response, I made one thing clear:

    “From everything I saw and heard, the tragic events of March 11 brought out the very best in the Japanese people’s willingness to help others. Neighbors rescued neighbors, government agencies mobilized quickly, and volunteers came forward in record numbers. Even today, more than a year later, countless individuals are working to help alleviate the suffering of the disaster survivors.”

    The Japan Government has in fact made improvements in its disaster response capability since the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and they are to be commended for that. But when I interviewed Japanese disaster responders in 2012, a year after the Tohoku disaster, I was continually told about shortfalls in the Japan Government’s disaster response system, such as the failure to adopt a standard Incident Command System (ICS) in Japan and the failure to establish a permanent lead agency for disasters comparable to FEMA here in the US. It was those shortfalls, consistently pointed out to me by Japanese responders, that I discussed in my report.

    At the conclusion of my report, I stated that:

    “I fully appreciate the fine line I walk as a foreign consultant visiting Japan and investigating disaster operations. I would not presume to recommend acceptance of a carbon-copy of any American management model. But neither would I hold back on offering advice if I thought it could do some good. The observations in this report are based on interviews I conducted in Japan, held up against the mirror of our successes and failures in disaster response in the United States. My hope is that the Japanese can learn from our American experience, including our mistakes, and choose whatever elements or ideas they think will work best in Japan.”

    I have an enormous regard for the Japanese, and I am proud to say that I have recently been accepted as a rostered member of a Japanese disaster response team in case of future disasters in that country. As Japan has recently elected a new government, I am hoping that my report will help them to strengthen their disaster response system

    Thanks again for posting, comments or questions welcome.

    Ganbatte kudasai,

    Leo Bosner
    Washington, DC

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