Here in Louisiana, so deeply touched by the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, we’re all too familiar with the complexities of recovering from large disasters.
With that in mind, we were especially interested in a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing Japan’s fledgling recovery from what residents there know simply as “3/11.”
On March 11, Japan was hit by not one disaster, but three: a massive earthquake, a subsequent tsunami and damage to a nuclear power plant.
The resulting loss of human life far exceeds the deaths from Hurricane Katrina.
Japan’s government places the death toll at nearly 16,000, with more than 4,000 people still missing. The size of those losses means that comparisons between Japan’s recovery challenges and those faced by Louisiana residents after Katrina and Rita go only so far.
Even so, we were struck by some familiar themes in reading the report on Japan’s recovery. As with Katrina, the disaster in Japan is being greeted by some residents as an opportunity to build something better from the ruins, especially in Japan’s economically distressed northeast region.
“I feel bad saying this, since so many people died,” oyster fisherman Tadakiyo Kudo told The Wall Street Journal. “But if we don’t look at this as a good opportunity, we’ll feel paralyzed, because there is absolutely nothing here.” Kudo and his fellow fishermen have been waiting for government help, but in another echo of Katrina, the wheels of bureaucracy are slow.
“No matter how long we wait, a rebuilding plan doesn’t emerge,” Kudo said.
Impatient with waiting for a government plan, Kudo and his fellow fishermen are discussing how they can help each other rebuild together, without waiting for government assistance. Such difficulties remind us that government institutions, while an important part of any recovery from large-scale disaster, are seldom nimble enough to jump-start recoveries quickly. In Japan, as in Louisiana after Katrina, much of the spark for rebuilding will have to be driven at the grass roots, or what the Japanese call “gembaryoku.”
Japan’s disaster destroyed property on which residents still had outstanding loans, robbing them of equity they desperately need to get their lives back in order.
As with Louisiana’s controversial Road Home program, Japan’s government is still grappling with how to resolve this dilemma.
There’s also the familiar challenge of whether to simply replace — or try to improve — institutions destroyed in the calamity.
In the Japanese coastal city of Rikuzentakata, the tsunami destroyed Takata Hospital. No one is sure when or if the hospital will be rebuilt in a community where more than a third of the residents are elderly.
“Some policymakers say that to rebuild shrinking, aging communities without radically reshaping them doesn’t make sense,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Japan suffered more than $100 billion in damage to its roads, railways, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure as a result of the March disasters, and as its government grapples with red ink, spending to make damaged communities whole again will be a hard, if not impossible, task.
Japan’s experience reminds us that recoveries from major disasters are inherently difficult, regardless of where they occur. But the resilience of the Japanese people — and Japan’s progress just six months after the March disasters — is reason enough to hope for better days there.