Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Day Japan Stood Still

A sense of complacency compounded by incompetence. Bureaucratic bungling and a lack of clear lines of authority. A slugglish response leading to a feeling of betrayal. New Orleans in 2005? No, Kobe in 1995.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is tempting to make comparisons with the tsunami that devastated the coasts of Sumatra and Sri Lanka less than one year ago. Yet fearsome as the death toll was, the disaster hit what was basically an economic backwater.

A better comparison would be Kobe, like New Orleans a modern, industrialized city and an important port with a population of about 1.5 million Kobe that is about three times larger than New Orleans. Now that ten years have passed since the January 17, 1995 earthquake, it provides a good example of what to expect.

Japan prides itself being prepared for earthquakes, which are common throughout the archipelago (though not so much in the Kansai area surrounding Kobe). Japan spends a fortune on trying to predict coming quakes. Every year on Sept. 1 (anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake) the country holds earthquake drills.

Yet the authorities were caught completely flat-footed when a 7.2 scale earthquake struck. The quake killed 6,433 people, injured about 40,000 and made 300,000 people homeless, some of them for years. Economic losses exceeded $100 billion, or fully two percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.

The government’s response was sluggish and confused. It took Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama nearly 24 hours to decide whether to dispatch troops to Kobe (though looting was fairly low). No clear lines of authority for disaster relief had been established that would permit an effective response.

Nobody complained about the performance of Japan’s equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the simple reason that Japan had no equivalent of FEMA – still doesn’t to the best of my knowledge. The government couldn’t even declare a state of emergency.

Japanese customs officials held up specially trained search dogs from Germany at the airports because of quarantine rules. Some of the most effective disaster relief was performed by the Japanese gangsters, known as the yakuza. At least they had a national network and clear lines of authority. Other private companies, such as Seven-Eleven also provided help.

“[The experience] demonstrates the failure of Japanese government policy to keep up with environmental changes and challenges. We learned that we had no system for civil security. We have a security system for international crises, but for defense of people against natural hazards it simply was not there.”

Drop the world “Japanese” and you would think it is somebody talking about Katrina. In fact, it was an assessment from Haruo Shimada of Keio University, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News about four years after the earthquake. “People were suffering, but still no troops were sent.”

Kobe would come back, of course. Water, electricity and telephone service were fully restored in six months. Railroad service resumed eight months after the earthquake. Port facilities were about 80 percent repaired at the end of the year. In about one year Japan’s GDP had returned to the level prior to the quake.

In three years the national government would spend more than $58 billion on rebuilding infrastructure, public facilities and public housing for the tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed. The Hanshin Expressway, whose collapse became the enduring emblem of the quake, was reopened about a year and a half after the quake.

But two years after the quake 70,000 people were still living in spartan temporary housing while more permanent accommodations were built. While the government spent billions on public facilities it balked at compensating individuals. The victims were dependent on insurance, family and charity.

As in New Orleans, the poorer neighborhoods suffered the most. In Kobe it was Nagata Ward, mostly a collection of individual wooden huts that caught fire and burned. This area looked like it was carpet-bombed after the quake, one observer said. Four years later some residents were still living in container boxes.

It took ten years for Kobe’s population to return to a pre-quake level. Most rebuilding has been completed; the homeless are now living now in concrete apartment buildings. The port facilities were rebuilt fairly soon after the quake, but the city permanently lost some container business to other ports. Kobe would never really be the same.

34 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

I was in Japan that day, and it is interesting to think about the parallels. One thing I don't know, considering the relative success at rebuilding you describe, is the nature of Japanese homeowner's insurance. I don't remember hearing discussions at the time about insurance losses (which we've been hearing since Katrina first made landfall) but I'd be surprised if Kobe wasn't a much better insured city than New Orleans, based on the descriptions of the latter I've been hearing.

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I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

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