Japan’s Tsunami Recovery Holds Lessons for the World

It’s the largest engineering project ever undertaken, budgeted at $315 billion over 10 years.


Kenji Sano's liquor store in Kamaishi, Japan.
Kenji Sano’s liquor store in Kamaishi, Japan. PHOTO: JONATHAN KOLATCH

Kamaishi, Japan

Natural disasters, such as Hurricane Florence or the Sulawesi earthquake-tsunami, grab the headlines for a few days or weeks, but vital lessons of reconstruction, which emerge over time, are often lost. Only on my fourth trip through Japan’s tsunami zone, in 2015, did I sense that the country’s intricate 10-year recovery plan was beginning to yield tangible results. I recently visited again, 7½ years after the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, which killed 22,000. A lot can be learned from the Japanese experience:

• Plan transition housing well in advance. With great dispatch after 3.11, the Japanese government moved tens of thousands of refugees from emergency shelters into flat-roofed, metal-clad prefabricated homes, drawing on ready plans imported from the 1995 Kobe/Osaka earthquake. To provide convenient access, flexible bus routes quickly replaced trains where track damage was too extensive to repair.

• Immediately set up temporary shopping centers, catering to daily needs, and speed the reopening of local businesses. The heartwarming news came in a note Kenji Sano pasted on his shop door in the Green Leaf Temporary Shopping Park, in Kamaishi, one of the towns hardest hit by the tsunami. “This springtime,” he wrote, “I reconstructed a ruined house and liquor shop. So I have stopped business at this temporary shop and moved back to the site of my former shop and house.” Five years after 3.11, Mr. Sano was eager to reprime the family business—his father started it in 1926—so that his son, 51, can support his family.

• Prominent evacuation signage is essential. Neighbors to Mr. Sano’s left and right perished because they didn’t know where to go. Throughout the tsunami zone, signs now point toward elevated areas that would have saved many lives had they been in place before the disaster.

• Mental-health services are essential. Many of the tsunami survivors in aging Japan suffer from dementia. But there weren’t enough social workers to penetrate their walled-in misery. Mr. Sano, who recently turned 87, half-jokes about senility, pulling out dog-eared business cards from foreigners who visited his shop decades ago.

• Not all towns should be restored to their prior state. Two hours south of Kamaishi sits one of the most ambitious tsunami reconstruction projects. Rikuzentakata suffered the second-highest death total in the tsunami zone (1,800), when floodwaters from Hirota Bay obliterated the entire city center. To ensure that this never happens again, flooded areas are being raised 30 feet and more, using earth shaved off a nearby mountain and moved 2 miles by conveyor belt to the fill site. Unanswered is whether Rikuzentakata should have let nature prevail and the town rebuilt in the heights. Seven years after the tsunami, the town’s final shape is still left to the imagination.

Four hours up the coast, in Taro, the entire tsunami dynamic plays out in miniature. Taro was protected by X-shaped inner and outer retaining walls towering 33 feet. The tsunami left Taro looking like a bald man’s pate: surviving houses on the high-ground perimeter, total devastation on the low-lying plain. The population plunged from 4,434 to 3,019.

Yet Taro is determined to carry on. Breakwaters and sluice gates are being rebuilt. An on-site cement factory streamlines reconstruction. Private homes and town services ring the heights, out of flood range. An 8.5-acre solar-energy field will power 400 homes. In the center of town sits a new baseball field, home to the local semipro team, Kit Kat Dreams.

• Don’t generalize about tsunami survivors. “Every refugee’s tsunami is his own,” says Sono Hayashimoto, 79, a Toro grocer. “You can’t see their suffering inside.” Ms. Hayashimoto’s private burden is visiting her husband, hospitalized with dementia, and her son, paralyzed last year in a motorcycle accident. Taro is known for the best salmon catch in Japan, and her son was set to open a line of dried salmon, destined for Japan’s larger cities. “This rebuilding is for the next generation; not for me,” Ms. Hayashimoto says with a sigh.

• Never position a nuclear plant below maximum flood levels. In Hirono, just a few miles south of the Fukushima nuclear plant, a man named Takeda took me to a pole marking the maximum tsunami wave height. Every structure above that point was scarcely touched; every point below was destroyed. The Fukushima plant sat smack in the path of the tsunami.

Japan’s tsunami recovery is the largest engineering project ever undertaken, budgeted at $315 billion over 10 years. But apartments have been completed and most refugees have moved into permanent housing. When work finishes in 2021, the Monday-morning quarterbacks will march in. In an undertaking of this magnitude, all the world’s evils—inefficiency, waste, redundancy, graft, corruption—will surely surface. Major construction companies will be left with orphaned machinery. Many workers will be laid off.

But Japan will have rebuilt dozens of towns with parks, modern schools and stores, and state-of-the-art facilities—the best effort world-wide to date to create “smart communities.” And the world will have disaster-recovery models to analyze and learn from for generations.

Mr. Kolatch is author of “China Mosaic.”

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