The coastline of Minamisoma city, one year on

It’s a year today since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku area, and this weekend the people of Japan are pausing to reflect on what happened then, how it affected them, and what could have been done differently. The Japan Times is holding a one year memorial special, some of which is available in English. I thought I’d do a brief review and give some of my own thoughts on the last year before I head out to the memorial.

My own experience of the events of that day was perhaps more distant than most, because I was in Tokyo and I spent the entire afternoon cut off from any form of news or current events, since I was walking across Tokyo and had no knowledge of what was happening a few hundred kms to my North: but for a single message from my partner that somehow slipped through the congestion to my phone, I had no idea that anything bad had happened – it was just a confusing afternoon of earthquakes and failed trains as far as I was concerned. Then, of course, the next few days were full of power cuts and confusion and some very scary aftershocks, so after a few days I bailed by Shinkansen to Beppu, and it was then that I realized that the rest of Tokyo was in a state of panic, which I described here. I came back a week later and by then everything had died down, recovery had begun and although things were still chaotic in the north east, nothing seemed very different in Tokyo.

Now of course everything is much more measured and calm, and media coverage has turned towards learning lessons from the events of that day. The most obvious lessons concern disaster preparedness, especially for the heavy industry and energy sector, which needs to be built on the coastline. It seems possible that these catastrophic tsunami hit the area every thousand years, and although no one knew that a year ago, it does seem that there was some awareness of the tsunami risk in the area. My partner volunteered with the Peace Boat recovery team in Ishinomaki for a week, and while she was cleaning beaches there they stumbled upon a series of tumbled cairns that had been erected a hundred years ago. Written on them was a warning not to build homes around them, since a tsunami had reached their location a hundred years earlier; this warning had been ignored. It’s not just the big power plant makers who ignored the possible seismic risks in the area.

I think this event contains messages about disaster response in an ageing society that extend far beyond Japan. The affected region has a very old population, and we’re discovering that disaster response for such a population is necessarily different. Just as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed that populations with a high prevalence of chronic illness can suffer quite terribly from the loss of modern amenities, even if they’re quite young, so this disaster showed that elderly populations need special responses that take into account their frailty, the dangers of moving them, their ties to homes that they may have lived in for their whole life, and their particular chronic illnesses. On the one hand there was a need to evacuate populations from the fallout of the nuclear accident; but on the other hand, many of them had nowhere to go and no desire to leave the place of their birth – and little long term threat from radiation. Should the response to a nuclear accident be tailored to the population surrounding the plant? Chernobyl was surrounded by a young population with many children, but Fukushima is characterized by a very much older, more settled group of people who are at low risk of radiation-related illness. Should they have been treated differently? In such a period of chaos, perhaps a more tailored and nuanced evacuation response would have been in order.

I have become involved in some research about this and other issues in the town of Minamisoma city, and I’m hoping to explore them in more detail this year. I have visited the town once, when I took these stunning pictures, and although disaster response and radiation epidemiology are not my specialty I’m hoping to contribute in some small way to understanding how the response to a disaster of this kind should be handled in an ageing society. China is going to be ageing rapidly under the influence of its one child policy, and it is not only prone to earthquakes in some regions but also has a large nuclear power program. The UK and France have nuclear power and an aging population, so I think the lessons from Fukushima will extend to those countries as well. What we learn from Japan may be instructive for those countries in the future. Tonight on NHK I watched a documentary about the 4000-odd American marines who responded to the initial tsunami and helped to save lives all along the coast, and this show made clear to me that even the most developed and richest countries are not necessarily able to handle events like this in isolation. I hope that lessons learnt from this event will help us to prepare for future events on the same scale, to respond rapidly and effectively to minimize disruption and loss of life.

Asia has seen huge loss of life from natural disasters in the last 10 years – the Asian tsunami of 2004, the floods in Pakistan, a couple of nasty earthquakes in Iran and then last year’s floods in Thailand. Let’s hope that the 2011 tsunami will be the last such horror to visit the region for a long while, and that any lessons to be learnt from Japan’s experience don’t have to be acted on anywhere for a very long time.