2nd anniversary of the big earthquake
March in Tokyo is usually quite mild, although like Guelph the weather can exhibit extremes. But that’s not true of the Tohoku region on the Pacific coast north of us which took the brunt of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo and Tohoku seem like a world apart, like southern Ontarians contemplating the Saskatchewan prairies.
Night time temperatures in Tohoku are still quite chilly in March. It’s still full on winter there, which is why the problem of adequate shelter for earthquake survivors reached crisis proportions and remained dire for weeks and weeks. Almost 20,000 people perished in the tsunami. The majority were the very young and the very old, the most vulnerable of any population. More than a quarter million others were left homeless immediately, not just in need of shelter but of shelter on high ground. The immediate humanitarian problem was fuel for heat, then drinking water and food, then medicines, medical equipment and personnel, clothes, toilets and bathing facilities. As per often rehearsed disaster drills, survivors took shelter in designated public high schools and municipal buildings. But without electricity or oil to power portable generators and run heaters the immediate threat was hypothermia. People could literally die of the night time cold in Tohoku if they went outside: no heat, no clothes except what they fled in, etc.
Many port facilities were destroyed which meant not just that the government could not deliver disaster aid through the ports, but the fishing fleets that are the mainstay of the economy there - those ships that survived intact - had no means to continue in business. Local roads, bridges, rail lines and tunnels were also destroyed. (Japan is a mountainous country with many highway tunnels.) Northern Japan came perilously close to being cut off from southern Japan because of the damage to the concentrated transportation infrastructure along the Pacific coast and the threat to the volume of traffic it supports. Civilian and emergency traffic was re-routed through mountain routes instead, which was not an equitable substitute.
Through the roads that remained open emergency supplies began trickling into the area immediately, “trickling” being the operative word. In fact it was admirable how quickly the Japanese picked themselves up and began cleaning up. But it took more than a month for the Japan Ground Self Defense Force and the American forces in Japan combined to begin reliably delivering large quantities of relief supplies, including field toilets and showers.
As the world knows, the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was happening simultaneously. Prime Minister Naoto Kan worked like Hercules to contain and control the situation against the inertia of a bumbling energy industry, and I think he did an admirable job under the circumstances. But ultimately he took the political fall for ineptness and was replaced by Prime Minister Toshihiko Noda. Disaster victims’ humour was not well treated by the introduction of a 120-page application form for government disaster financial compensation. (The application form was accompanied by a 60-page explanatory book.)
Today, two years and two general elections later Japan has another Prime Minister, conservative Shinzo Abe, and another new direction for reconstruction and rehabilitation not just of the devastated area, but of the whole economy as well. In the meantime, many thousands of people continue to live in ‘temporary’ housing that the government speedily erected in the summer of 2011. Tsunami debris has been cleared and the disposal of it - much of it contaminated with one thing or another - is ongoing in landfills and incineration plants in other prefectures. It is estimated that the debris created on that one day equalled about the total waste output of the entire nation for a ten-year period. Many of the fishing towns in the once flooded coast remain frighteningly stark plains of empty nothingness. Some residents have returned to rebuild and carry on, but many others have decided to relocate elsewhere, which may throw a wrench into the government’s rehabilitation plans.
As a result of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown almost all of Japan’s 53 or so nuclear reactors remain offline and our energy is being supplied at higher cost by increased import and consumption of fossil fuels. In addition, this year we are all subject to an across-the-board flat rate tax hike to raise revenue to further reconstruction efforts.
It’s an interesting life.