In some villages, the job of reconstruction still has a long way to go
Preparing for my trip to the Tohoku region of Japan, I had an expectation of a country that has had to rise many times from devastating earthquakes and tsunami’s in its past, and would be an international poster child in how to restore and rejuvenate decimated communities with speed, community input and diligence. Instead, I encountered many of the things that are being felt in Christchurch right now: people still deeply scarred by the tragedy, communities still operating out of temporary containers, a government trying to balance the need for progress and development and appease the wishes of residents, and a burning desire to share with the world experiences of disaster reduction.
Staying the first few nights in the bustling metropolis of Sendai City in the Miyagi Prefecture, it was hard to gauge how far the region had come in the past four years. It wasn’t until I travelled north to the top of the east coast that I witnessed the true extent of the disaster, and the ongoing struggle to recover.
One village I visited was Minamisanriku. Ninety-five percent of the small fishing village had been washed away, along with a quarter of the population.
I was lucky enough to be shown around the village, hearing stories first hand. All that remains of the village is a small residential area in the hills and a makeshift retail area made up of dozens of small containers.
A tribute to the disaster and the people it took had been set up a few weeks before I arrived.
It contained photographs and harrowing stories from the day the tsunami struck – the most tragic of which was the inundation of the village’s tsunami and earthquake-proof crisis building. Two hundred people who evacuated to the building perished when the surge of water engulfed the three-storey structure. Only a handful of people who managed to scale an antenna on top of the building survived.
The skeletal remains and twisted metal of the building still stand as a testament to the power and unexpected scale of the tsunami.
Huge earthworks to raise the ground-level by another 10 metres as an added protection for the new town were nearing completion, but the start of real construction in Minamisanriku was still years away.
The city of Ishinomaki on the southern coast of Tohoku was perhaps the most poignant of the places I visited.
Thousands of people still live in cramped temporary housing, post traumatic stress issues are only coming to the fore now, scars of the old city are easy to find, and heartbreaking stories of mistakes made and lives lost are still unfolding.
I spoke to many people of their experiences during that day, and the challenges they have had moving forward.
As well as visiting some of the areas devastated in the 2011 tsunami, I was lucky enough to be a part of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
This was a place for the world’s thinkers, humanitarians, researchers and engineers to come together and share experiences of disaster, and technological advancements and sustainable ways to reduce the impact of disasters in the future.
The similarities with Christchurch were remarkable, particularly over frustrations at still being stuck in temporary homes four years on, a perception the government wasn’t listening as much as it should, and that the recovery was dragging on far too long.
The lesson from Japan at all levels was to learn from the past, protect the future, and prepare for the worst.
It’s a mentality that could save many lives should disaster strike our small country again.