Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Tuesday, February 2, 2001

Fear of Trembling

by Ashok Ashta


The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck at 5.46 am on January 17, 1995, a Tuesday morning after a three-day weekend. It registered 7.2 on the Richter scale - first in Japan since records were maintained. Over 6,000 people died. Sleeping in my room on the first floor in the dormitory 200 kilometres away in Nagoya when the quake struck, I can still remember the bed shake and the sparse furniture rumble. Having lived in Japan for some years, I was not perturbed even though it was the strongest quake I had ever experienced. I was comfortable in my belief that in the land of earthquakes this too would pass off as a mere statistic - Japan would cope.

As I reached the breakfast table in the dining hall a couple of hours later, I was stunned to find blanket coverage by helicopter-borne TV cameramen of the beautiful city of Kobe reduced to rubble. The Kobe earthquake was only later christened ?he Great Hanshin Earthquake' to give due credit to the widespread damage it had caused in the Kobe-Osaka area referred to as Hanshin. As the blanket coverage of the area continued on TV through to the weekend, my heart would cry seeing what can only be described as a pathetic bumbling excuse for a rescue operation.

According to media reports, the then Prime Minister Murayama was briefed on the extent of destruction two hours after the quake and it took the Governor of Hyogo Prefecture (where Kobe lies) four hours to request the aid of Japan? Self Defence Forces. A typical example of the continued initial incompetence was the incident where the Swiss rescue dog team was made to wait for over a day at the airport while bureaucrats in Tokyo deliberated quarantine laws!

Sitting spell-bound in front of the TV day after day watching the coverage, I could only conclude that while Japan is advanced in technology and engineering, its bureaucratic coordination skills to come to the aid of its citizens are primitive. I began to think that Japanese bureaucracy would make even most Third World governments embarrassed. Two things were lacking - competent crisis management set-up and a clear line of command that could deal with such disasters.

So, how did Japan cope? While the initial Government response was painfully slow, subsequent recovery efforts on several parallel tracks ensured speedy recovery. The poor government handling at the initial stage that got round-the-clock media coverage spurred the citizens to action. With an average of 20,000 volunteers turning out each day, it is estimated that almost 120,000 mandays of volunteer service was provided in the first three months alone. (Even syndicate criminal gangs were the earliest to provide relief services.) As a result, 1995 is sometimes referred to as ?he first year of volunteerism' in Japan.

From preparing hampers to making monetary donations, children and adults across the nation were united in their contribution to the recovery process. These actions of human warmth were certainly a useful healing balm for those rendered homeless and those who suffered family losses.

With almost 50,000 buildings reduced to ruins and with about 300,000 people at least temporarily homeless in the harsh winter month of January, shelter was identified as the primary need of the hour. Undamaged school gyms and local community centres served as the primary rescue shelter. However, with the limited sanitary arrangements and the accompanying cold, the threat of communicable diseases loomed large. Indeed, for weeks after the earthquake, reports on influenza and pneumonia were common.

Within three days, construction of what is called Emergency Temporary Housing (ETH) started. These are 2-bedroom plus kitchen pre-fabricated units of about 20 square metres. At the peak in November 1995, 31,000 households were accommodated in the 32,000 ETH units constructed for those affected in Kobe alone. The costs were covered by the National and Prefecture governments.

At the same time, there was a need for reconstruction of the devastated area and an advisory panel to the Prime Minister was constituted. The panel recommended the construction of 100,000 public housing units (a figure revised downwards later). It advised the immediate removal of all debris and demolition of unsound structures. The concrete would be crushed and used for harbour construction and repair. Of course, such a decision would alter the historical character of the city and remove its cultural landmarks. But the focus of Kobe? reconstruction was on utilitarian aspects of urban living.

Government aid for purchase of the public housing was provided under the Disaster Relief Law which is biased towards helping disaster victims who are less able than others to regain their independence on their own. There are strict established policies according to standards such as degree of damage sustained, age and income.

Many among Kobe? population were forced to reflect that destructive development of the past had destroyed the natural environment - that environmental disruption and scarcity of nature had built up a city extremely fragile against disasters.

Japanese seismic engineering expertise remains the best in the world. What has emerged is that knowledge is far from complete. The vast majority of deaths in Kobe occurred in the collapse of housing built using traditional Japanese methods based on a post and beam style with no lateral support, and with heavy roofs. Steel-reinforced housing using contemporary Japanese quake-resistant technologies survived comparatively well.

Most of the serious damage to larger commercial and industrial buildings and infrastructure occurred in areas of soft soil and reclaimed land - the worst soil possible for earthquakes. While the latest seismic engineering techniques had been applied, they had been done so without the benefit of adequate testing in strong earthquakes. Cooperation with the United States to further improve on seismic engineering has since been enhanced.

So, there can be said to be three main factors in Kobe? recovery. First, the incessant coverage provided by mass media that moved ordinary citizens into action. Next was the nationwide effort of the people to support their fellow citizens in distress. This was followed by the no-nonsense action plan based on utilitarian principles by the awakened Japanese Government which concentrated on the core issue on hand - shelter.

Whether an adequate disaster management apparatus is now in place is unanswerable at this time. Manuals already existed before 1995 but were of little use when calamity struck because practice is very different from theory. Only time will tell. What is clear is that the traditional Japanese management technique of ?low decision, quick action' is not suitable for disaster management where quick decisions are imperative to reduce loss of life.

As an epilogue, I would like to add that post-trauma stress remains a problem for many survivors even six years later. They are yet to forget the days of horrifying loss that surrounded them. However, even in the pain they suffer, many find time to thank God, for had the earthquake struck at a later hour, when the kitchen breakfast fires were on and the early commuters already packed in trains going to work, the damage might have been exponentially worse. Perhaps it is this tenacity of character that allows them to cope even today.

Ashok Ashta is President of BUSINESS-INDIA/JAPAN, a private enterprise promoting Indo-Japanese Cultural and Business relations.



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