Japan’s frantic rescue efforts in response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami catastrophe are now entering their seventh day.
Rescue officials search for survivors in Ofunato, Japan, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Interestingly, volunteers, community groups, and NGOs found themselves filling in the gaps as first responders during the initial absence of government-provided relief.
While the sheer scale of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami dwarfs both Kobe and Katrina, a comparison of the Japanese government’s early responses to the Tohoku crisis suggests that Japan has learned some valuable lessons and applied them.
The Kobe earthquake was contained mainly within one prefecture (Hyogo) and confined to a few major cities. By contrast, early estimates for the Tohoku disaster – really three disasters at once: one of the largest earthquakes in modern history, a massive tsunami, and a nuclear crisis – project fatalities to exceed 10,000 and an economic cost of about $300 billion across 16 prefectures. In stark contrast to Kobe and Katrina, the government provided a widespread tsunami warning alerting citizens to get to higher ground. Within the first 72 hours, the Kan government had deployed hundreds of thousands of Self Defense Forces to assist with rescue and relief, organized a network of inter-agency committees and task forces, released any funds requested, and attempted to reassure its citizens that everything possible was being done.
At the time of the Kobe earthquake, the Japanese government initially refused all offers of international help (on the grounds of language difficulties).


While the Japanese public was quick to recognize and applaud the role of volunteers and community organizations in the Kobe earthquake relief effort, it took the government many months and much public pressure to acknowledge their role, and to begin taking legislative steps to strengthen volunteerism and the non-profit sector in Japan. One exception to the generally effective and positive response of the Japanese government on the Tohoku disaster is the growing criticism over the management of the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis.
But as the hours grow into days with relief supplies still slow to arrive, it comes as no surprise that criticism and complaints are starting to be registered against the government’s response thus far. Following the Kobe earthquake, Japan enforced these strict codes with an emphasis on earthquake resistance. This time the government not only welcomed such help, but also appealed to the world for it – and the world is rapidly responding. In the case of the Tohoku tragedy, within 48 hours the government had designated a member of parliament (Ms. Thus far, the Japanese government seems to be responding as capably as it can, given the scale of the disaster. The sheer immensity and scope of the disaster make response that much more difficult for officials. As a result, most of the death and destruction appears to have been caused by the tsunami rather than the earthquake itself.


Regular earthquake drills and diligent dissemination of public information on disaster evacuation seem to have proven highly useful, as well. A more complete picture of how well the Japanese government is responding will be formed over the next 72 hours.
In addition, the Japanese government must now attempt to manage simultaneous crises – rescue and relief efforts underway and containment of the damage to the Fukushima power plant. It’s worth noting that most of the current evacuation centers are located in local schools that withstood the earthquake. The government’s statements are too general in tone and light on content to offer the reassurances a tense and devastated Japanese public needs.
In the meantime, the Japanese and international media are filling in the gaps, and as I’m following this closely, it must be said they are doing a responsible and comprehensive job of it.



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