Faith shaken

Faith shaken AFTER 8 months had passed since the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe in western Japan, all damaged rail lines have been restored, most of the collapsed buildings have been removed, and reconstruction has begun. However, as of mid-August, some 7,600 residents who lost their homes, still continue to live in school buildings and community center buildings which continue to be used as evacuation sites. The quake has exposed the poverty of Japan's seemingly prosperous cities.

Some 20 odd tents stand in rows on the playground of an intermediate school in Kobe. In 1 of those tents lives Master A (a 12-year old 6th grader) with his 42-year old father -- who works in the building trades, his mother and his 17-year old sister, a highschool senior -- a family of 4 living in a tent of 5 sq metre area, in which the day temperature reaches a sweltering 40 degree c (105 degree f). They have so far failed to win the chance to occupy city-built temporary housing; so, they will have to continue living in this tent until their house is repaired for reoccupation.

In another elementary school's gym lives a 46-year old taxi driver who would otherwise have to walk to and from his job 40 minutes each way every day, because the temporary housing benefit he won is just too far away and inconveniently located for him. To date, 30,000 temporary housing units have been built in phenomenal time. The right to live in one such is won by pulling lots, although not according to the wishes of the earthquake victims.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck southern Hyogo Prefecture, about 500 km west of Tokyo, hit at 5.46 am in the dawn of January 17. It had a magnitude of 7.2 and seismicity of 7 and was quite shallow, similar to the quake of magnitude 6.6 that had struck Maharashtra in India in 1993. The Kobe quake occurred in a place where no quakes had been ever recorded, nor were expected to occur. It claimed nearly 6,000 lives, injured over 35,000 and caused some 172,000 buildings to collapse fully or partially, and resulted in some 317,000 people to become refugees during the post-quake peak days.

The fact that shattered those affected was that, much of the damage and suffering was human-caused. For one, 88 per cent of the 5,500 people who died, got crushed under collapsed buildings -- meeting an instant death. Half of the dead were over 60 years of age living in old wooden buildings in the city center.

The inherent danger of these old wooden buildings has been pointed out on numerous occasions, but Japan's housing policy does not cover their renewal. Elderly people with limited income were not in a position to buy nor rent good new houses which forced them to live under such highly dangerous conditions. In the Japanese government's housing policy, poverty certainly is a cause of death among this age group.

Besides, measures to tackle another bout of earthquake -- usually anticipated -- was highly inadequate. After the killer quake stopped, it was impossible to extinguish the fires it had caused immediately, primarily because fire fighting equipment was damaged. Water mains were also ruptured. Roads had became jammed with heavy traffic preventing firefighting trucks and ambulances from reaching the affected areas. Consequently, rescue of the injured was delayed. The number of firemen in Kobe is only 61 per cent of the national standard, and the number of fire trucks is lesser -- 59 per cent. Hazard prevention plans in Kobe were designed to deal with a quake of seismicity 5.

Earthquake experts had earlier advised the city government to prepare for a quake of seismicity 6, but local authorities found this a costly proposition and ignored the advice. As a result, great damage was inflicted on tall buildings, raised expressways, port facilities, and on the famed Shinkansen high-speed rail line.

Officials of the ministry of construction and architects boasted that Japan's earthquake resistance technology was the best in the world, and that large modern buildings could easily withstand a quake the size of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 of magnitude 7.9. The Kobe quake razed to the ground validity to these claims: the Hanshin quake was not anywhere near as strong as the Great Kanto Earthquake. The area of parks and open space in Kobe's residential and industrial zone is just 2 sq m per person. Even where such places are marked in the city plan, they are not given priority. Urban safety planning is found to be in the doldrums in most Japanese cities.

Even the best equipped hospitals were proved useless in the Kobe earthquake. Lifelines (water, gas and electricity) were cut, rendering hightech medical equipment useless as such a natural disaster was not anticipated. Doctors had to diagnose by flashlight, and wounds had to be washed with well water, such was the sorry plight.

The roof of the prefectural office in Kobe houses equipment which uses satellite communication during emergencies. The emergency power supply needed to run the gizmo failed, rendering it useless, too. After the quake, prefectural employees walked from the office to the police headquarters asking for help. With the exception of a small number of emergency telephone lines, all lines had virtually collapsed, making outside communication next to impossible. It therefore took 2 days for the Central Government (in Tokyo) to assess damage conditions and start developing counter measures to tackle the situation.

However, the most shocking aspect was the helplessness of local authorities in gearing up aid measures directly after the quake. Fifteen municipal government workers died and scores were injured out of the 2,200 city government employees on the day of the quake. Even basic information about food and water supply for the victims was not given.

In addition to this, post-quake city planning was done and decided all too quickly without listening to the citizens. The authorities at the City Hall were rigid in their effort to push the plan through by mid-March. This undemocratic approach was strongly criticised by the angered public.

However, some neighbourhood communities quickly reacted to this situation with great efficiency by running evacuation shelters and working to rebuild their neighbourhood.

In developing countries, a large number of cities are expected to emerge, requiring decentralisation and size regulation, as people and urban functions get concentrated. And they have lots to learn from the terrible tragedy of the Grant Hanshin Earthquake. No matter how strong buildings and roads are made, the forces of nature always reigns supreme. Destruction of large structures is unavoidable, so, time and money must be invested for post-quake recovery plans well before a quake strikes.

Also, there is the need to diversify the ways gas, electricity, water and communication functions are supplied. In case of failure of any one major source of electricity, water or telephone service, Japan's large cities soon cease to function properly. Especially, damaged telephone lines can throw the city into a turmoil. To solve this problem, number of lines should be increased, wireless and portable phones be made available, and the network of person-to-person communication should be improved. In addition to food and water systems which serve large areas, water supply, wells and the use of small streams should be left to serve smaller areas.

Thirdly, use of cars in the damaged area should be restricted right after the calamity occurs. Kobe's roads were found jammed with vehicles causing severe disruption to firefighting and emergency rescue vehicles.

Finally, communities definitely need more power. In times of major natural hazards like an earthquake, the city government, as well as the Central government becomes handicapped. People having knowledge about the areas in question, and local residents, should have the power to enforce reconstruction, recovery and restoration efforts. Japan has yet to achieve these goals.

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