International Workshop Examines Post-Disaster Rebuilding in Japan and Global Social Vulnerabilities

Muna Killingback | December 07, 2011
International Workshop Examines Post-Disaster Rebuilding in Japan and Global Social Vulnerabilities

Preparation made all the difference for the Tohuku schools when the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan.

In most schools, staff had agreed on an evacuation route in advance, and that careful planning saved nearly 3,000 students in Kamaishi City.  But at the Okawa Elementary School in Miyagi, valuable time was lost as teachers tried to agree on where to go.  As a result, 68 of the school’s 108 pupils died.

The Consul General of Japan in Boston Takeshi Hikihara gave this example as part of his frank assessment of Japan’s preparedness and rebuilding process following its 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami to an international audience of a workshop at UMass Boston on November 17-18.

The workshop  on “Innovation, Diversity, and Sustainable Development in Areas of Social Vulnerability" was organized by UMass Boston’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters (CRSCAD), which focuses on reconstruction with vulnerable populations. Drawing participants from five continents, the workshop examined lessons from Japan as well as social vulnerabilities in specific populations worldwide.

“Our temperament and our mindset are an important part of preparedness,” Consul Hikihara told the audience.

Consul Hikihara noted that the safe evacuation of most schools was the result of careful disaster preparation.  All organize emergency drills in the first week of September. This careful planning also ensured the successful automatic shutdown of the Shinkansen, bullet trains that run at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, that resulted in zero derailments, fatalities, or injuries to those on board.

The budget for Japan’s reconstruction is $228 billion over the next five years and a government agency for reconstruction will be launched to oversee the process.  “Easy to use” grants for local governments to implement their own rebuilding plans and working with the private sector are two strategies, said Consul Hikihara. Overarching policies will also ensure that rebuilding responds to the longer-range challenges of an aging society and population decline.

Beyond the immediate impact of the disaster, David Santulli, executive director of the nonprofit organization United Planet, said that the rise in the number of suicides following the disaster compounded the initial tragic loss of life.  The elderly were especially at risk.  Santulli stressed the need for more trained mental health workers.

“NGOs were much more prepared in 2011 than they had been for the 1995 Kobe earthquake,” said Yuki Uchida, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute who worked with the Japanese NGO Civic Force following the disaster.  For example, a prior arrangement made by Civic Force enabled them to use charter planes to survey the damage almost immediately.

A Global Call for Better Planning

“Planning decisions are not taking climate change into consideration—while this is bad in developed countries, it is really bad in the developing world,” said Patricia Perkins from the University of York in Canada. 

She was one of several presenters who addressed inadequate planning as a cause of increased vulnerability to disasters.

Lien Dieu To, a master’s student in public affairs at UMass Boston, spoke of vulnerabilities in Vietnam, saying that while the central region of the country has geographic features that make it prone to flooding, “humans make it more serious by fast deforestation and overexploitation.”  She recommended that government officials receive more training and that communities in the most vulnerable areas be relocated.

Post disaster rebuilding plans in and around New Orleans are still experiencing obstacles, reported Jennifer Trivedi of the University of Iowa.  Attempts to relocate some of Hurricane Katrina’s survivors to safer ground in the Woolmarket neighborhood north of East Biloxi have met with resistance.  Woolmarket is a more white and wealthy community with large lots; its residents protested efforts to rezone areas to build smaller homes on smaller lots like those that were in East Biloxi.

In many countries of the South, megacities exist that have experienced a form of “involution” marked by vast expansion coupled with economic decline, said Oluwatoyin Olatundun Ilesanmi of the Redeemer’s University in Nigeria.  The megacity of Lagos in Nigeria is “dysfunctional yet dynamic”, she said, and its history is “marked by severe deterioration in the quality of life with high levels of poverty, proliferation of slums, and environmental degradation.”

Perkins urged planners to use a “bottom up”, not a “top down” approach, that invites the participation of residents and draws on the community’s knowledge.  She recommended a strategy of “community mapping” that asks members where the rivers flood, where children play, where the public spaces are, etc.  Older people can share their historical knowledge with younger people as well.  “People in the neighborhood need to be involved in the way infrastructure is developed, ” she concluded.

The complete workshop program including abstracts and presenter biographies, as well as some presenters’ power point presentations are available on the website of CRSCAD at

Tags: crscad , disasters , rebuilding , sustainable communities

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