Japan Did Learn from 2011 Trifecta Disasters

The Diva is always happy to be able to provide a “lessons learned” posting. Here are two articles about the most recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Bitter lessons of Japan’s 2011 tsunami put to use with latest quake.

Massive tsunami waves slammed into Japan’s northeastern coast more than five years ago, killing about 18,000 people and prompting authorities to revise warning systems and evacuation plans to try to save more lives.

On Tuesday, when a magnitude 7.4 quake hit the same area, the country swung into action, using lessons learned in the March 11, 2011, disaster to ensure coastal residents evacuated well before the much smaller waves hit.

Japan’s latest tsunami reaction shows lessons learned from previous disasters

Five Year Review of Japanese Earthquake and Related Disasters

From the Japan Times, this retrospective article: The 3/11 disasters, five years on.

 Demographic trends in the affected areas — already gloomy before the disasters — paint an even grimmer picture of their future today. Reconstruction from the March 11, 2011, disasters must remain a national priority for years to come.

Apparently, we in the U.S. are not very quick to pick up on “lessons that needed to be learned!”  See: Five Years After Fukushima, U.S. Nuclear Safety Upgrades Lagging

From the NYTimes, additional commentary about the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster outcome.

From Reuters: Fukushima’s ground zero: No place for man or robot

From Homeland Security Newswire: Fukushima: Five years onNews coverage of Fukushima disaster inadequate

Five years after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the disaster no longer dominates U.S. news headlines, although experts say it is a continuing disaster with broad implications. A new analysis finds that U.S. news media coverage following the disaster minimized health risks to the general population.


Japan’s Emergency Management System

Thanks to the author, Prof. William Siembieda, for an advance look at one chapter of a new book.  It is Chapter 6: Japan’s Megadisaster Challenges: Crisis Management in the Modern Era, in F. Baldwin and A. Allison (Eds.) Japan: The Precarious Future (2015). New York: Social Science Research Council and NYU Press. [It costs $35. from the NYU Press; see details here. ]

Usually I only share information about documents available at no change, but this book chapter is of special interest and I recommend it. Not only does it cover the recovery efforts after the Sendai Earthquake and related disasters of March 2011, but is also analyses the national emergency management systems of Japan, NZ, and China to a limited extent.

For those in the US who wonder how recovery could be managed in ways other than the system set out in the National Disaster Recovery Framework, this chapter will give you some ideas.  The Diva has been told that there are few articles in English that explain how the Japanese systems of crisis management works at the national level. Another good reason why the chapter is worth reading.

If you would like more information, or if you would like to chat with the author, who also has done extensive research on recovery in NZ, you can reach him here.

Why Is Recovery So Hard To Do? – some observations and suggestions

Time after time, my blog postings document (and lament) the difficulties that various countries, states (prefectures, provinces), and localities are having working through an effective and efficient recovery. You name the country and the recent disaster event, and it will be on the list of places struggling with recovery.

First a brief account of why we need to do a better job with recovery, soon and worldwide. In short, the costs are too high to go unchecked.  It’s a global necessity that we need get better at recovering from disasters. See this article from HS Wired, March 15: 2012 economic losses from disasters set new record at $138 billion.  The lead paragraph says:

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reported that for the first time in history, the world has experienced three consecutive years in which annual economic losses have exceeded $100 billion. The losses are the result of an enormous increase in exposure of industrial assets and private property to extreme disaster events. brief account of why we need to do a better job with recovery:

In reviewing some of the recent examples of recovery from major disasters in 3 countries, as covered in this blog, some common concerns can be seen. After reading the Bosner article about Japan, and Ian McLean’s article about Christchurch, and some of my recent posts about the Hurricane Sandy (US), I the nations currently dealing with recovery from major to catastrophic events have several features in common.  I will note just two, because this is a topic that warrants a dissertation or two and not just a blog posting.

Pace: In the first two years of effort, generally recovery is proceeding more slowly than anyone imagined or hoped for.  Typically, neither public officials or citizens are satisfied Some of the problems are lack of knowledge and experience, some are public policy and management  deficiencies, and others have to do with political will.

Organizations– in all cases the organizations in place were not adequate, so new ones had to be created after the disaster occurred.

·       In Japan, they created a national Reconstruction Agency. See earlier postings on this blog for more details.

·       In the Christchurch area, they created a new regional organization – CERA.  Here is the link to the Recovery Strategy developed by CERA.

·      And in the U.S., HUD assumed responsibility at the federal level for recovery and created the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force. The organization, functions, and responsibilities are still being sorted out at the present time.

My concern is that organizational problems, many of which could be anticipated, are preventing effective leadership during  the recovery period.  I think more help is needed from the public administration community on recovery organization and management matters. And I would like to see the executive agencies better utilize the existing talent – researchers, consultants, and practitioners. Several excellent mechanisms exist, such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the National Academy of Science. Think about using them!

And I would like to see more groups like the American Society for Public Administration, NEMA, and IAEM get more pro active and make recommendations to the executive agencies.

Presently,  the spotlight is on the new role of HUD and specifically on the new organization –  the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. In my view, until the needs of the recovery process are dealt with. making progress with “resilience” is not realistic.

As always, comments and additions are welcome.


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.

Japan’s Recovery Agency Not Functioning Well and Slated for Reorganization

The U.S. isn’t the only country not coping well with long-term recovery from a major disaster. Japan is having its problems too. There is no question that effective and efficient recovery is very hard to do. See Reconstruction Agency under reform a year on. Some excerpts from the article:

 Plagued by administrative disorganization, the Reconstruction Agency is revamping itself to accelerate recovery from the March 2011 disasters, ahead of the first anniversary of its launch Sunday. Designed to oversee the rebuilding of areas devastated by the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, the agency was expected to guide related government agencies.

In reality, however, progress has been slow in housing reconstruction and decontamination of radiation-polluted areas.Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made postdisaster reconstruction a priority, along with economic revival, plans to improve coordination within the agency to better effect policies. “The agency will be revamped drastically with the vertically divided administration eliminated,” Abe said.

According to a colleague who has visited Japan, Given the scope of spatial area and many small cities the capacity issue is not surprising. There is a real need to support the urban planning function with more than physical planning. The need to put projects in the ground requires more than graphics. It requires collective effort of multiple stakeholders.

One more article on the problems of the Reconstruction Agency. Feb. 7.

Entrepreneurial Approach to Japan’s Disaster Recovery


From HS Newswire, October 24, an interesting account of how Japan uses business people to facilitate disaster recovery. Their approach does share some similarities with the U.S. use of reservists and FEMA Corps, but emphasizes business and entrepreneurial skills. Some excerpts:

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit off the east coast of Japan in March 2011 killed more than 12,000 people, sent tsunami waves six miles inland, and damaged or completely flattened more than a million buildings; combined with the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, it was the most economically damaging disaster in world history, costing Japan an estimated $235 billion, according to the World Bank; a Japanese organizations tries a new approach to disaster recovery: entrepreneurship

The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdown spread havoc and destruction on the east coast of Japan, and more than a year later some areas are still recovering. A major contribution to the recovery has been the Tokyo-based Entrepreneur group called ETIC. Unlike more traditional recovery efforts, the group emphasizes an entrepreneurial approach to recovery.

ETIC was created in 1993 with the entrepreneur internship program. The program has placed 2,000 interns at startup companies and social enterprises in Japan.

Triplepundit reports that ETIC has created the Disaster Recovery Leadership Development Project. The biggest corporations in Japan have combined to send about 200 fellows to the recovery region for from three months to one year in order to help run temporary housing units, rebuild transportation systems,and help companies affected by the disaster recover and start-up again.


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Review of Sendai Disaster – at IMF/World Bank Conference in Japan this week.

Some of the press clips re this meeting now going on in Japan:

World Bank Meeting on Sendai Disaster, October 10, 2012.

Lessons from Sendai Disaster- WSJ Oct. 10

Planning for Disaster Can cut Costs. World Bank, Oct. 10


Recovery Issues of Aged Population – Findings from Japan

Disaster drove down Japan’s lifespan along with recovery;

article reprinted from the Economist, August 5, 2012, in the Canadian Chronicle Herald.

 The findings are so significant I am including the full article here. Two issues are worth noting: the stress of a disaster can shorten the lifespan of a victim and the older and younger victims have different priorities and operate on a different time scale re recovery planning.

Many in Japan were taken aback recently by the news that, for the first time since 1985, Japanese women have lost their crown as the world’s longest-living people. Their average life expectancy fell to 85.9 years in 2011, a bit less than a year shorter than that of the women of Hong Kong.

People were even more crestfallen at the news that this was largely caused by the death toll from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. It was a reminder of how disproportionately the disaster had hit the elderly in this aging corner of the planet. Of almost 18,800 dead and missing, 56 per cent were older than 65.

Aging is taking its toll on the reconstruction process too. In towns along the coast, officials say that they have encountered a “generation gap” that is hampering their efforts to rebuild. Simply put, older people, aware of their relatively short remaining lifespan, want to restore what they lost as soon as possible. Young families want revitalized communities with more people, jobs and social freedoms.

In miniature, it is a problem faced across the country: An elderly population, richer, more risk-averse and more powerful than the young, is also more resistant to change.

In Onagawa, a fishing port in Miyagi prefecture that lost about one-tenth of its 10,000-strong population in the disaster, the elderly have so far gotten their way, officials say. More than a third of residents were older than 65 at the time of the tsunami, compared with 24 per cent in Japan as a whole.

As local official Toshiaki Yaginuma recounts it, many of the elderly lived in 15 fishing hamlets partly or wholly washed away by the tsunami. Instead of rebuilding them, the local government wanted to merge them into fewer, larger settlements. It dropped the plan, however, because of staunch opposition from the fishermen, mostly older people. They argued that each beach had its own history, culture and tradition, and they were worried that, if they moved, they would lose valuable fishing and oyster-farming licences that, some say, can bring in $100,000 a year.

Their sons and daughters have different priorities. Yaginuma said that, as well as wanting more access to shops, hospitals, jobs and schools, the young wanted the settlements to be merged to give them more chance of finding a spouse and raising a family.

This is a telling factor in a country with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Whole families are split over the issue, Yaginuma says.  “The elderly tell the young that they’re arrogant to think like that,” he says. “The young say, ‘Father, you are not thinking about our future.’”

Finding compromises on such fraught social issues is key to the rebuilding, which suggests that it will remain painstakingly slow. In the past Japan’s central-government bureaucrats would have run roughshod over those who resisted them. This time, the country’s Reconstruction Agency says that the devastation is too widespread for a one-size-fits-all solution. It therefore has been left to local governments to draw up reconstruction plans, funded from the national budget.

The central government still hopes that rebuilding stricken areas can be a blueprint for revitalization of aging communities elsewhere in Japan. It is allowing innovative places to become “special zones” that are light on regulation and heavy on such new ideas as smart energy grids and high-density living.

The implication is that those who simply want to restore what was lost may not get generous treatment. Yet officials acknowledge that the elderly have a great deal of voting power in Japan and are hard to boss around.

The challenges of demography are even more acute in neighboring Fukushima prefecture, where the tsunami-induced meltdown of a nuclear-power plant has scattered hundreds of thousands of residents. Here the varying outlooks of young and old overlap with different perceptions of the dangers of radiation.

As in Miyagi, experts say that more elderly than young evacuees are in favour of returning to their hometowns and picking up life where they left off. Many pensioners consider low doses of radiation less of an issue than the severed ties with their old communities.

Younger parents, meanwhile, see little hope of things ever getting back to normal. First, they fear that their children are more susceptible to cancer threats from radiation. Even if some of the mess can be cleaned up, they worry, businesses are less likely to return to contaminated areas.