Tuesday, 16 March 2021

GEJET - Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (and Nuclear Release) - Tenth Anniversary

The tsunami museum at Rikusentakata, seen from atop the coastal tsunami barrier across the land that was devastated by the waves in March 2011

Thursday 11th March 2021 was the tenth anniversary of the Japanese triple disaster: earthquake, tsunami and radiation release. I sent my greetings and respects to my Japanese colleagues and spent the day teaching my students about the event and its aftermath.

I first visited the affected area in 2014, having failed to gain a place on an earlier expedition that took place a year and a half after the disaster. The affected area is the Tōhoku region of northeast Honshu island. In particular it comprises the eastern parts of the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the picturesque Sanriku Coast, a land of forests, rice paddies, estuaries and drowned rias.

A tsunami is usually nothing like the breakers that surfers ride. The 11 March 2011 waves, seven of them, were a slowly rising mound of thick, viscous grey-black water, full of debris, oily, turbulent, menacing and highly destructive. Observers were horrified to see the water go on and on rising until it engulfed everything in sight and obliterated most of it.

One of my early memories is to have visited the shell of a school at Arahama, a few hundred metres from the sea in Miyagi prefecture. The gymnasium was full of personal effects that had been salvaged from the wreckage and no one had the heart to throw them away. Photograph albums, statuettes, wedding pictures, cameras, even clothes. Most heart-rending was a collection of about 100 children's school satchels, symbolic of an education blown apart by the disaster. Remarkably few children died in the tsunami, but almost all of those who did were in the Okawa elementary school, where a misconceived evacuation decision had fatal consequences for almost all students and teachers. The building is due to become a national monument. The story of Okawa is movingly described in Richard Lloyd Parry's remarkable book Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan.

When it comes to earthquakes, Japan is a remarkably well-prepared country. I was in a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in southern Italy in which nearly 3,000 people died, 8,800 were injured and 280,000 were left homeless. I experienced an earthquake of the same magnitude and remarkably similar physical characteristics in Sendai, capital of the Tōhoku region, and in the local coffee bar people did not even stop reading their newspapers as the ground shook.

On the Sanriku coast, vast amounts of debris were systematically separated into artificial mountains of soil, concrete, wood and steel, and then recycled. Around them, cemeteries, shrines and monuments sprang up. A makeshift shrine was erected at the base of the three-storey emergency operations centre in Shizugawa. It was washed out by a 20-metre tsunami wave, while the officials who remained at their posts broadcasting warnings until they drowned. Two survived by clinging to the radio mast on the top of the building. As I stood beside the shell of the building, local people driving to work would stop and say a prayer at the shrine in memory of the emergency managers who sacrificed their lives for the community.

The Japanese Government promised reconstruction in only seven years. Broadly, they achieved it. People who lost their homes had to live in transitional houses only 28.5 or 33.5 square metres in size, but in compensation they knew they would be given proper homes in a period of time that was remarkably short. Elevated ground, refuge mounds, sea walls, improved infrastructure, landscaping and flood gates appeared all along the Sanriku coast. So did tsunami museums. Several of these are large, bold structures which demand of the residents and visitors that they remember the disaster and ponder on its meaning. In Kesennuma, the museum is integral with a school that was washed out. A car was deposited, upside down, on the upper floor, 15 metres above ground level. Piles of rusty debris remain in situ. In the museum's auditorium visitors are shown a film of a 17-year-old giving his high-school graduation speech, nine months after the tsunami. His teacher whispers to him "be strong", as he grapples with his emotions and struggles to express the enormity of coming of age in a time of major disaster. It is a very moving testimony.

In November 2019, on my second visit to Fukushima Dai'ichi, I stood in front of the wreckage of reactor no. 1, about 20 metres away. It was streaming out radiation at a rate equivalent to 350 chest X-rays. That was on the up-slope side. On the ocean side the rate was one third higher. The reactor site is a remarkable place: hundreds of tanks, each holding 100 tonnes of radioactive water, thousands of radioactive vehicles that cannot be driven off site. The ruined reactors, the cryological barrier and all the impedimenta that maintains it, the businesslike air of programmed activity. On my first visit there were 9,900 workers on site; on my second visit exactly 3,730.

The road infrastructure of the irradiated area is being upgraded and the fields are full of workers who are stripping off the soil. Everywhere, there are dumps full of back bags of soil and biomass, low-level radioactive waste. One looks at the landscape, perhaps bright green in summer, or golden-russet in autumn, and it looks so peaceful and innocent. However, the level of radioactivity varies widely, from negligible to three times the permissible limit. There are 'hot-spots', small and large. In Iitate the town is open for business and its buildings are shiny with newness, but only 10% of the population has returned, mostly elderly people. Radiation levels in Iiatate are low: in the local noodle restaurant only 2% of the permitted maximum, but translocation means that the situation is unreliable. Forests cannot be decontaminated without razing them. Radioactive leaves blow across and settle on the decontaminated fields.

Down the road in the interdicted area there is a plant where contaminated soil is being mixed with uncontaminated soil and spread on the land so that a variety of plants can be grown in it. This is an interesting experiment with careful control and monitoring of the processes involved (even rainwater is collected from the roof of the plant and tested for contamination). However, the workers need 40 minutes to deal with one cubic metre of soil. Unless the final process is heavily automated it will be a Sisyphean task. Meanwhile, the problem of what to do with hundreds of thousands of bags of radioactive soil and biomass seems insoluble.

In Natori, on the coast near Sendai, I met an elderly couple who were looking after 30 dementia patients in sheltered housing. They had decided to devote their lives to serving the community, in thanks for having survived the tsunami. Overlooked by the local authority they were struggling with a care burden that was making their lives intolerable, but they soldiered on with strength and fortitude, uncomplaining. We took the matter up with the local authority and pleaded that they be given more support.

The tsunami zone has been losing population for decades and the disaster could only accelerate that process. Yet, not all is lost. Artists have been irresistibly attracted to the area. Small businesses have reappeared. Tepco, the culprits of the nuclear disaster, have been talking about establishing a vineyard in the area. The Sanriku narrow-gauge  railway, devastated by the tsunami, was washed out by the floods of October 2019 (which also submerged and ruined 12 brand-new Shinkansen bullet trains). However, it has been mulling over returning to service on a model akin to the Welsh tourist lines, and there is solid local support for this community asset. 

In contrast to Europe, in Japan property loses its value over time. Perhaps this is part of the philosophical concept of the impermanence of human existence. However, there is nothing ephemeral about the resurgence of life on the Sanriku coast after the devastating triple disaster. We have just witnessed ten years of a most remarkable transition, from devastation to the reestablishment of orderly life.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

A brief critique of UK emergency arrangements in the light of the Covid-19 crisis

The current system for managing major incidents and disasters in the United Kingdom was devised after the Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, riots of 1986 and reflects a preoccupation with public order. The lineaments of the system reflect military practice.

In the world as a whole, there has been a gradual process of demilitarisation of emergency response. Moreover, where innovation flourishes it has been accompanied by a reduction in authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, in Britain, there were shortcomings in the response to the 1999 Ladbroke Grove train crash, particularly in the treatment of the survivors. The same shortcomings were present in the 2005 London bombings, as were others (for example, the way in which 'major incident' as declared). In 2017, the responses to the Manchester Arena bombings and the Grenfell Tower fire were substantially criticised. According to the Kerslake report, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service was "brought to a point of paralysis" during the response to the Arena bombing. In Grenfell Tower, London Fire Brigade used the wrong tactic and were comprehensively criticised by HM Inspectorate.

In making these observations I do wish to acknowledge the superb dedication and professionalism of members of the emergency services. What is lacking is a proper system that would make the best of their skills.

JESIP, the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles project has been widely described as worthy but ineffective. Training for major emergencies is insufficient and poorly managed.

We call flooding that stretches from Yorkshire to Somerset "a major incident". And by the way, according to the Environment Agency, one third of existing UK flood defences are liable to fail, while others are controversial or lacking. Coronavirus, which has killed 120,000 people, infected four million and brought the economy to its knees is also "a major incident". Let's lay it on the line: these are disasters.

In the case of coronavirus, the medical profession has taken control of the agenda, yet most of the failings--and there are many--refer to civil protection issues: communications, logistics, coordination. Most striking is the abyss between plans and the ability to implement them with emergency response measures. Let us remember that, where foresight should have been exercised, improvisation can all too easily be regarded as negligence.

In the United Kingdom, the status of emergency planning has declined while it has been enhanced in other countries. Absurdly, it is not treated as a profession and has no career progression or higher education requirements (I should add that the field has an intellectual history that stretches back 101 years).

The 2004 Civil Contingencies Act has been sidelined throughout the Coronavirus disaster. Now every country needs a basic law that broadly specifies the organisation and structure of the civil protection system, and how it works. Examples are the Stafford Act in the USA, the Disaster Management Act of India and Law 225 of 1992 in Italy. Failure to utilise the basic law is an indication that it is not fit for purpose. It is unconscionable that major emergencies be managed without a basic law and there are many reasons why the Coronavirus Act is not an acceptable substitute.

In the UK emergency planners do not manage the events they plan for. This is because the concept of 'command' eclipses that of 'coordination' (and also because of the low status of this field). A gulf has therefore developed between plans and the ability to activate them. The worst consequences of this have been experienced with Covid-19, quite possibly with the avoidable loss of tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of pounds.

Modern emergency management is based on coordination and cooperation. It is more a question of apportioning tasks and resources than commanding people. Moreover, it is inclusive. There is some evidence to suggest that, on aggregate, women make better emergency managers than men do. Inclusiveness should extend to the needs of minorities, BAME, but also people with disabilities, who constitute one seventh of the population.

The challenge of the 21st century is to make civil protection an inclusive process. People must take more responsibility, collectively, for the risks they run. They must participate in safety and crisis response issues. The age of spontaneous voluntarism is over: that of organised voluntarism is in full swing. Civil society organisations should be a full, incorporated part of the system, as they are in Italy, Germany and Sweden.

I believe substantial changes are needed. We should accept that we have disasters in the UK. We should acknowledge that they require a proper, fully articulated structure and a system to manage them, backed by renewed national legislation. Let us replace doctrine by 'plans' and 'procedures'. Let us replace major incident by 'major emergency' and 'disaster'. Let us modernise the culture of civil protection.

Where emergency and disaster responses are overcentralised, they fail. In this respect, negative lessons can be learned from France, positive ones from Sicily, where the autonomy statutes gained by the region and its nine provinces were a major stimulus for the improvement of civil protection plans and practices. Creating a system that is solidly based on the local authority (and properly funded at that level), coordinated regionally and harmonised and supported nationally is now a vital British imperative.

With thanks to Mr Tony Moore for his observations and guidance.


Tuesday, 9 February 2021

The 1980 Southern Italian Earthquake After Forty Years


Laviano, Province of Avellino, 1984

Monday 23rd November 2020 at 19:34 and 52.8 seconds marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1980 southern Italian earthquake in which I was directly involved as a survivor. The magnitude 6.9 tremors killed 2,914 people and injured 8,848. About 280,000 people were left homeless (including myself) and damage was reported from 628 municipalities.  In the epicentral area, 36 towns were completely destroyed. The anniversary provided an opportunity to look back at the event and consider how the recovery process fared. It is salutary to reflect that many of those scholars who have studied this disaster are too young to have experienced it.

The year 1980 was something of a watershed in the field of disaster risk reduction (or disaster management as it was then known). Civil protection, in the form of locally-based disaster response capacity, would begin to emerge in the following decade, which would end with the inauguration of the United Nations Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The incessant, cumulative hammer-blow effect of disasters of all kinds on modern society had begun to stimulate a consistent demand for greater safety and security. It would soon become imperative to satisfy the demand with far-reaching changes in the organisation of the response to major emergencies.

During the early aftermath I corresponded with Senator Edward Kennedy about the American response to the disaster in the Campania and Basilicata regions of southern Italy. It was clear that the US Government was influenced by the suffering and the shortcomings of the response to the tragedy as it built up its own capacity to respond to natural hazard impacts. The Italian disaster came only 18 months after President Jimmy Carter had signed the US Federal Emergency Management Agency into being, and FEMA was still finding its feet.

The initial response to the disaster in Italy was slow and chaotic enough instantly to become a national scandal. It culminated in the issuance by Sandro Pertini, the President of the Republic, of a stern and very public rebuke to the government of prime minister Arnaldo Forlani. More positively, the shortcomings in the response set in motion a long process of creating a viable modern civil protection service at all levels, from national to local.

The reconstruction was a long-drawn out process. For example, in the town of Salvitelle (1981 population 952), in the mountains of the Province of Salerno, it took 17 years. This small, ancient hilltop settlement was completely ruined. With participation and oversight from the University of Florence's Department of Architecture, it was carefully reconstructed to anti-seismic standards, with full restoration of its historic buildings and the original character of its built environment.

In 1980 there was much to learn about recovery from disasters in the modern world. As a result, one study estimated that 14 different models of reconstruction were applied in the disaster zone. Although it was relatively well connected by modern highways, the area had the reputation of being remote, wild and very much an economic backwater. Attempts to create industrial growth poles came quickly to a predictable end as the firms attracted to them took the subsidies and closed up shop as soon possible. Nonetheless, there were some surprising victories in the food processing and automotive sectors. For the local economy, all was not lost, or not quite all.

For many years after the disaster local people lived in 40-square-metre wooden prefabricated homes, the transitional housing provided by the government. There were some very large encampments, notably Bucaletto in Potenza city, the capital of Basilicata region. There was some sense that these places had become ghettoes for the disadvantaged. A parish priest, whose first name was Dante, wrote a long poem called The Divine Comedy Brought Up to Date, in which the third tier of Hell was inhabited entirely by earthquake survivors housed in everlasting temporary accommodation. In some towns the huts are still there, decades after they were first erected. Most are used as holiday accommodation for émigrés who return to their home towns during the summer vacation period.

The smallest municipality in Campania region is Romagnano al Monte (1981 population 477). The original settlement is draped spectacularly across a spur of a mountain with a precipitous drop into a gorge of the Melandro River. It was ruined and completely abandoned after the earthquake. A new town was built a short distance away, although the town hall and coffee bar remained in huts. Ever since the disaster the local administration has been struggling to rehabilitate the original settlement, which lies decaying and cordoned off. They have managed to build an information technology centre and a museum within the ruins, but not to restore the parish church, town hall and attractive urban fabric. This rather bizarre and dysfunctional strategy is purely the result of the pattern of availability of money. The European Union's regional fund financed the new buildings, but the town could only access money to build specific types of structure. At present rates it will take centuries to complete the rebuilding, but there is little chance that more funds can be generated and the local economy is one of the most depressed in Europe.

The epicentral area of the 1980 earthquake takes the name Irpinia, after an ancient Latin dialect word for wolf. The positive aspect of the reconstruction is that it did eventually happen, despite all the problems of economic marginalisation and low priority on the national agenda. It proved to be a crucible of experimentation in architectural, engineering and urban planning terms. The results are highly variable both in terms of their effectiveness and their aesthetic worth. Towns like Senerchia and Lioni were rebuilt in situ. Some, like Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi, worked hard to recreate the original genius loci, or spirit of place: others did not. Conza di Campania and Romagnano al Monte were rebuilt from scratch on green-field sites, posing the problem of what to do with the ruins. In Conza they are used for summer festivals, but the effect is at best bitter-sweet. In Senerchia the cumulative effect of ruination by centuries of seismic activity has created something like the levels of excavation of ancient Troy or Knossos. Comprehensively, there is much to study in the reconstruction of Irpinia, and much food for thought in the problems confronted and solutions invented.