Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina vs. 11

I mentioned the typhoon that hit the main island of Japan about 10 days ago, typhoon number 11. I think that it might be interesting to compare how disasters are dealt with in Japan and the U.S. I will admit that until last week my money was fully on the ability of the U.S. to deal with disasters. The shameful, slow, un-coordinated, and fully inadequate response to the Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, where thousands died in the earthquake, and at least hundreds died afterwards because of the poor response, made me happy to be from a country where they took things a little more seriously. Even in 9/11, horrific though it was, both citizens and emergency workers from a variety of organisations worked together in a way that made me proud.
First off--The preparations made beforehand:
In Japan, way more money than it seems prudent to spend is spent on fortifying the coastline with large concrete jacks called tetrapods, which mean that when a storm hits it is rarely slamming directly into houses or communities. Even if a ship is unlucky and gets thrown into the air and inland, it probably won't kill anyone (except perhaps any poor sailor who happens to be on it). I have, in the past, commented to friends that I wondered if there were any part of the Japanese coast line that wasn't fortified in this way. It is not a leisure-friendly approach to use of the coast.
In the U.S., even in places like Florida, you don't tend to see much fortification of coastlines, nor even zoning regulations that prohibit beachfront property from being used residentially. The coastline is obviously quite long, but actually so is the Japanese one. Considering the proclivity of hurricanes to hit Florida, it is surprising that more work is not done there. Louisiana may be another matter, I don't know. There is clear evidence that work on the levees that would have prevented this disaster, however, was neglected.
There are obviously a lot of factors at work, and a direct comparison isn't really possible, but in the case of disaster prevention, I think Japan clearly does a better job.
We next go to the time when people knew that there was a storm coming.
In Japan, for typhoon number 11, for example, there was extensive coverage for the couple of days prior to it hitting, and people were warned to stay indoors. Flood warnings were issued for Kyushu, which tends to flood when typhoons hit. On the day that it hit Tokyo, people were asked to go home early, and most major companies let workers go around two or three, prior to the worst of the storm. The train schedules were disrupted after that, but because the news of when the storm would hit and how strong it was, people had time to prepare, and get home prior to it hitting. Most people don't use cars to commute in Tokyo, and so getting home is not always easy in a disaster.
In New Orleans, from what I understand, there was also prior warning. The problem appears to be that the unexpected--a levee bursting--happened. People were expecting a very bad storm to hit, which it did, though it appears that the worst didn't hit New Orleans directly. While they may have had experience with bad storms, and covered windows with boards, etc., there aren't a lot of people who thought to prepare for a levee breaking. It was not expected. In this way, the storm actually served to take peoples attention from the much quieter, but as it turns out much more lethal, danger of flooding. Why FEMA would have been fooled is another question.
Again, the circumstances are not really comparable. But it should be noted that flood warnings were issued, along with specific instructions on what to do, in Japan. In New Orleans there wasn't someone, it seems, putting two and two together and saying to people that there was this other danger besides being blown away. I don't know who this should have been, but that fact alone means that I have to score this one for Japan.
During the onslaught of the disaster. People were given warnings in both places to get out of those places expected to most be affected. In the case of typhoon 11, this was Izu, and in the case of Katrina the gulf coast. The ability of people to do that turns out to have been a major factor in the real devastation Katrina wrought: New Orleans has a lot of people, many black, living at poverty level, and without a lot of means to pick up and go. Japan does not have a large poverty problem. There is a problem, however with an aging population, and older folks have a harder time getting up and going. In Japan almost everyone knows exactly where they should go in case of an emergency. Mostly it is elementary schools, though in my neighbourhood we are asked to stay in our own homes. So, in Izu many older folks made their way to the local elementary school. The resident of New Orleans didn't apparently have any sort of disaster plans or instructions on where they needed to go. I think I need to score this one, too, for Japan.
Then there is the emergency response:
In Japan there are unlikely to be rumours of gunfire and lawlessness that prevent rescue workers, who may fear for their lives, to go quickly to areas where they are needed. Sure, in the Kobe earthquake the response was far from adequate. The situation, however, even in the city with the highest concentration of yakuza gang members, did not devolve into lawlessness: People had enough faith in their leaders ability to pull through before it was too late, and did not, for the most part, take the law into their own hands, or panic. I would say that you saw this in New York after 9/11, too. You did not see this in New Orleans last week. I don't know that this is an issue of disaster relief so much as the poverty of the people hardest hit, and the level of trust they put in their leaders. As the week wore on, it was clear why that trust was at such a low level: A callous disregard for the poor was nothing if not self-evident. Nearby and wealthy Jefferson parish refused to act as a staging area for evacuation and relief efforts. The classist, racist, when-are-you-ever-going-to-learn-to-live-together-South. Shame! Hotel guests were evacuated quickly by bus, while those too poor to have their own transportation, or whose transportation was underwater, were left to sit on a highway for 4 days. Shame!
Though much more could have been done leading up to the disaster, none of that is any guarantee the severity of the disaster would not have been just as bad as it was. But once that disaster hit, the inability of government and the community to work together in a trusting way to attempt to meet the needs of all residents is apalling. The continuing failure of government to do it's job is criminal.
Maureen Dowd has a good opinion piece in today's New York Times. I think that she is right on.
No matter how much I might bitch about Japan, I trust the government to do whatever it can in a disaster. It is a horrible thing to not be able to say the same about the U.S., but that is what one takes away from the experience of Katrina: If you live in the right place, you will be o.k., but if you don't, well, sorry, that's your problem. When people are suffering, it is all of our problem. Please think about contributing to the Red Cross.


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