Japan tsunami: the untold success story


Earthquake victims wait for medical care at the Ishinomaki hospital, March 28, 2011 in Ishinomaki, Japan.


Paula Bronstein

The nuclear catastrophe aside, there is actually a tale of success to be told in the wake of Japan's tsunami.

At least according to Malka Older, an aid worker with Mercy Corps.

"What they got wrong on nuclear, they got right on natural disaster," Older said in a recent interview.

Older, who previously worked in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, has been leading relief efforts for Mercy Corps in four affected Japanese towns in Iwate prefecture: Minamisanriku, Kessennuma, Rikuzentakata and Ofunato.

GlobalPost sat down with her while she was home in Boston on leave this week. Here is what she had to say about how the Japanese government churns out prefab houses, the surprising things they put inside them and why Japan's love of hand sanitizer is a blessing in disguise.

What are the stories that aren't being told about what's going on in Japan?

What struck me the most was how well prepared Japan was for the earthquake and tsunami. It obviously wasn't enough, especially in terms of the nuclear disaster, but what they did to prepare for the earthquake and tsunami worked. The scale, the number of people who died is terrible [about 15,000 are confirmed dead, with another 8,000 missing and presumed so] but it was far fewer than it might have been.

It's tricky to compare disasters, but if you look at the earthquake in Aceh [Indonesia] in 2004, it was comparable to the one in Japan in terms of magnitude and its proximity to populated areas. The death toll there was 170,000. If you take in the total areas affected in Asia and elsewhere, it's more like 230,000.

In Japan, they knew what to do. They knew when there was an earthquake that they should go, that a tsunami might be coming. Now, not everybody went, they didn't think it would be as big as it was. But in Sri Lanka you had people running toward the shore when the tide pulled out, so they could see the bottom of the sea.

What did the Japanese do in order to be prepared?

They have early warnings systems. Sometimes there would be a quake coming and you would get a text message to your phone telling you, maybe 30 seconds before it happened. Many institutions, such as schools, do frequent evacuation drills. On Natural Disaster Day, they have drills nationwide.

The temporary houses that the national government has provided are very impressive. They are prefab and they are tight, but they are all over the place and people were able to move into the first set within a month after the disaster. There isn't a lot of land left, and many temporary houses are built on school grounds. Officials tell them not to play their radios during the school day and to be careful of the kids, since they are right there on the playground.

In the longterm, the government is talking about terracing the mountains, but that will take a couple years. The temporary houses, on the other hand, went up almost immediately. The Japan Red Cross, which has the most funding, gave people who moved into the temporary houses six major appliances: a refrigerator, a rice cooker, an electric kettle, a washing machine, a microwave and a flat screen TV. It seems like a lot, but they are going to be living there for at least two years.

Outside where the tsunami hit, there is very little devastation. The construction there is very impressive and it held up. In West Sumatra, which experienced a 7.6-magnitude quake in September 2009, buildings went down everywhere. In Spain, which just had a 5.2-magnitude quake, it was incredible to see how many old buildings came tumbling down. Right now in Japan, there are 5.2-magnitude aftershcoks every day.

What distinguishes the aid response in Japan? Why do you think there has been success there when there hasn't in other places after similar disasters?

Japan didn't let in many international organizations. I can think of only three besides Mercy Corps: CARE International, Word Vision and Save the Children. The U.N. isn't there, the way it is in Haiti and most other emergencies, leading relief efforts.

As a result, local government has played a big role. People in the community, like school prinicipals, have really stepped up. Now there are pluses and minuses to this approach. On the one hand, these local leaders already have the trust of their community. They speak the language. They slot well into the structure of the society, which is a big deal in Japan.

But, on the other hand, many of these people have been severely traumatized, and it's a lot to take on in that state. There aren't a lot of facilities there when people burn out and many local people aren't familiar with international standards.

For the most part, things have been very well-organized. I've never been in an evacuation center before that had hand sanitizer outside of every room. Would it have prevented a cholera outbreak in Haiti? Probably not, but it wouldn't have hurt.

What exactly do you do when you provide relief?

Mercy Corps partners with a local organization called Peace Winds Japan. We give out supplies like kerosene lamps, blankets, mattresses, tents and hygiene kits.

We also set up a voucher program, partly funded by the Gates Foundation and Mercy Corps donors, by which we gave people $124 gift certificates as they moved into temporary housing. These allowed them to go to shops themselves and get more precisely what they needed. Since they could choose for themselves, it also allowed them to return to normalcy a little bit.

In Minamisanriku and Rikuzentakata, they really lost everything. So, there weren't even shops where people could use vouchers. There, we provided entrepreneurs with mobile shops that they could take around to evacuation centers and temporary housing sites to sell their goods. Like a hot dog cart, but one that sold tofu. People need to restart so the market doesn't move elsewhere.