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Resilient city recovers

Margaret Wise
Sunday, October 13, 2013

TODAY, I am writing from Sendai, Tokyo, a city headed by a female mayor recognised a year after the Great East Japan Earthquake by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction as a role model for its focus on resilient recovery.

Sendai is the closest major city to the epicentre of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off northeastern Japan's Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, shifting the earth's axis.

The city's coastal areas, seaport and airport were badly damaged and the country's 20,000 death toll included 600 Sendai residents.

The city is located in the Miyagi prefecture, a region reporting an economic upswing with recovery growing slowly and steadily both inland and by the sea.

Through several meetings in the US and Japan — aimed at broadening a group of journalists' understanding of a range of disaster and recovery activities — resilient communities shared common characteristics.

Communities that prioritised disaster preparation, the rebuilding of critical infrastructure, pre and post-disaster initiatives and the building of strong, caring, and resourceful communities recovered more quickly.

Slow recovery, though, was also attributed to lack of funding or bureaucratic red tape.

This week we visited Minamisanriku, a tsunami-ravaged coastal town lying to the north east of the main island.

With 95 per cent of the town destroyed, rubble and grey now mark the area where the business centre was once located.

Residents and local government officials recalled how damage to essential facilities like roads and bridges and the absence of lifelines that supply water, electricity and communication — restricted mobility and the delivery of services and goods to those who most needed it.

Two years and seven months later today, the absence of infrastructure and slow pace of recovery has locals weathering anxiety of another kind.

There is fear that the town will be abandoned as residents move to seek a life elsewhere.

According to the NGO Peace Winds, the population has declined to 17,000 from pre tsunami numbers of 27,000.

Mayor Jin Sato said his biggest fear was that those who had relocated to other regions would not return.

He said a decline in population would affect the rebuilding and continuity of the town.

To that end, priority is being given to rebuilding homes and acquiring land that would enable residential blocks to be built on higher ground.

However, his plan is not progressing fast enough and he lays the reasons for the delay in "issues" the municipality has with the national government.

"A town cannot rebuild on its own, it has to collaborate with the national government which provides the funds," he explained, citing an example where he had to wait several months for a decision to relocate the town's park and stadium to higher grounds.

"The government's stance was for restoration exactly where it was.

"It was a battle and they finally agreed but that took so long and there are dozens of similar issues."

Jun Imanishi, a counsellor from the Reconstruction Agency, said while the number of evacuees had declined by almost half the original number, 290,000 people were still occupying temporary shelters.

"Work on public infrastructure has moved to fully-fledged restoration and reconstruction," he said.

"Efforts are making steady progress, mostly as per the project plan and work schedule.

"With the exception of some areas in the Fukushima prefecture (the site of the nuclear plant disaster) and the coastal areas from which relocation was required, almost all school facilities have been restored.

"In terms of regional economies, the industrial production capacity of the disaster afflicted areas has almost recovered to pre-disaster levels.

"The agriculture, fishing and tourism industries have gradually resumed operation."

Meanwhile, in addition to building smarter, stronger and safer, the Japanese community is supporting initiatives to developing a national culture of resilience.

Capacity building includes Beyond Tomorrow, a program aimed at supporting and nurturing leadership in young survivors from disaster-hit areas.

Also popular among young families is the non-profit Plus Arts which developed fun hands-on disaster prevention programs for children, where fun activities included teaching children how to turn off the gas, the operation of fire extinguishers and how to make blanket stretchers.

"Through art and creativity we have been able to address environmental issues and create disaster awareness," said Toshinori Tanabe, Plus Art's Kobe office chief of staff.

"Japan is earthquake savvy but many are stranded and isolated after an earthquake.

"So we saw that survival skills were necessary, like how to make a fire.

"Since many live in apartment buildings, we teach what people should always keep in stock.

"After the earthquake more than 300,000 were in need of help but there were only 10,000 rescue professionals. So citizens themselves have to step in and help themselves."

According to Mr Tanabe, increasing an individual and community's resilience will prevent and reduce human and economic loss.

For disaster-prone Fiji, earthquake-savvy Japan and resilience-focused New York City have shown that we should not rely too much on numbers, be it quake magnitude or storm category.

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