Japan Struggles to Deal with the World’s First “Complex Megadisaster”

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Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Though some of you have expressed a desire to see Ecocentric move past the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, we’re not quite there yet. The good news is that crews have begun to restore power to the reactors, which should help accelerate the efforts to restore cooling to the still hot—and radioactive—nuclear fuel. Elevated radiation levels have been found in seawater near Fukushima—but experts say it’s unlikely to pose a health risk to the public through seafood, either for Japanese or for export markets. The spent fuel pools and hot reactors are still a threat—black smoke was seen rising from Fukushima Daiichi’s number three reactor, and elevated levels of radioactivity were detected in Tokyo tap water. But nearly two weeks after the nuclear crisis began, the fear levels—if not the radiation levels—have begun to lessen.

A breather from impending catastrophe should give us time to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from the Japan quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. That was the subject of a panel pulled together yeserday at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, pulled together by Dr. Irwin Redlener—the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and the country’s foremost expert on preparing for and responding to events like the Japan quake. “There are lessons to be learned about what happened to Japan prior to March 11,” Redlener told an audience of public health students. “We need to understand them.”

What happened on March 11 in Japan, and in the subsequent days, was something that had never happened before: the world’s first complex megadisaster, in Redlener’s words. The megadisaster part was undeniable—the quake was the fourth-strongest in recorded history and has left at least 400,000 Japanese homeless. But megaquakes and megadisasters aren’t new—last year’s quake in Haiti, which virtually decapitated the island nation, is another example. What is new—and complicating—is the nuclear.

The problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—the risk of meltdown and a large-scale release of radiation—have added an extra degree of difficulty that made a proper response that much tougher. “We had a natural event layered on top of a high-tech disaster,” said Redlener. “You had to deal with the quake and the tsunami, and then they had to deal with the continual concerns over the nuclear event, along with the continual threat of aftershocks. That’s no small thing.”

As complex as this megadisaster has been, however, no country should have been as prepared as Japan. Redlener pointed out that Japanese are experienced with quakes, live in buildings designed to withstand tremors, are engaged with disaster planning and have proven their resilience in the face of crisis time and time again. “The whole country gets into being prepared and being able to tolerate stress in a way that other countries can’t,” he said.

But in practice, the Japanese system has proved far from perfect. Redlener ticked off the problems: a delayed search and rescue capacity that failed to reach survivors during the critical 72-hour post-disaster window; vulnerable populations (including many elderly) who weren’t properly taken care of; ill-equipped shelters; insufficient “psychological aid”; and of course, “fail-safe failures” at the nuclear plant. “There was also tremendous message failure and confusion about who’s in charge,” said Redlener. “That aids to the problems of people already grieving and trying to cope.”

What went wrong? TIME’s Hannah Beech, reporting in Tokyo, lays the blame at the feet of Tokyo’s sclerotic bureaucracy:

One major bottleneck has been Japan’s fondness for red tape. “In special times, you have to do things in a special way,” says Kensuke Kobayashi, an IBM employee in Tokyo who has tried to organize relief efforts to Tohoku from the Japanese capital. “But in Japan, there is a legal wall that stops everything.” Japanese shipping company NYK offered to provide a container ship for helicopters to land on when ferrying in relief supplies to coastal areas. But the government rejected the offer because the NYK shipmates lacked the proper licenses to help with such work. After some wrangling, volunteer foreign doctors were told that because they didn’t have Japanese medical licenses, they could conduct only the “minimum necessary medical procedures” in the disaster zone.

Some medicine donations from overseas haven’t reached the many elderly suffering in the earthquake’s aftermath because Japanese regulatory agencies have not yet given the drugs approval. Local logistics companies have complained — off the record, for fear of angering the bureaucrats whom they depend on for future licensing — of days-long waits for permission from the central government to deliver donated goods. Only when their trucks get the magic pass can they start moving toward Tohoku. Until then, the boxes of relief goods, some of which were donated just hours after the earthquake and tsunami hit, sit in Tokyo warehouses.

Beech—who has also been TIME’s Southeast Asia bureau chief in Bangkok—notes that far poorer countries have often proven better at responding to a natural disaster than Japan has thus far:

In other natural disasters that I’ve covered, steady streams of local and international aid have usually converged upon the stricken area within four days of the event. This has happened even in developing-world countries with far less infrastructure than Japan has. But in Tohoku, as Japan’s northeast is called, aid has trickled in agonizingly slowly, despite the mobilization of 100,000 Japanese soldiers for the relief effort. It took more than a week after the earthquake, for example, for the region’s highways, which are reserved for emergency vehicles, to be filled with the kind of aid convoys that typically race to disaster scenes

It might seem surprising—Japan is supposed to be the land of ultra-efficiency, of Toyota’s just-in-time manufacturing prowess and bullet trains that always run on the dot. And it is. But there have always been two Japans: the country that produces export champions that can beat the world, and an inward, inefficient domestic sector that drowns in red tape. It’s the latter Japan, unfortunately, that has handled the crisis so far—and the result, despite all the resilience of ordinary Japanese and the courage of Fukushima 50, has been lacking.

Maybe that’s the lesson to be taken from the world’s first complex megadisaster. Prepare like the Japanese—but have someone else be in charge of the response.

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