Kobe after the Quake

Brian Covert

Many survivors remember well, as this reporter does, the
Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 17 and the question that haunted us every moment of that disaster: “Where is the relief?”

During our long wait for aid, we were virtually isolated from the outside world. Left to fend for ourselves, we were trying to make do as best we could while collapsed buildings glowed with burning embers and our neighbors were dying around us. In Kobe, rescuers were busy searching the rubble as firefighters tried to control the outbreaks of fire. They were far too overwhelmed to be able to operate in other places around Kobe, such as in Nishinomiya, my hometown in Hyogo Prefecture.

All this death and destruction left the Japanese victims with a feeling of despair. Administrative delays in finding aid to help the victims were felt at all levels, visible to all. We will never know how many thousands of lives could have been saved and how many billions of yen saved had the official reaction been quicker.

In hindsight, we can now better understand how the Kobe area could be so caught off guard by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale. For years all the concerns about “the big one” in Japan were centered around Tokyo.

The press published only nine days before the Great Hanshin Earthquake a study conducted by local researchers about the possibility of a major earthquake in the Kansai region, where Kobe is located. The analysis vaguely referred to a timeframe of “in the next century.”

This false sense of security had long encouraged the local governments of Kobe city and Hyogo Prefecture to push their foreign and Japanese residents to move to the artificial islands of Port Island and Rokko Island as showpieces of “internationalization.” And yet the seismology experts considered these ambitious waterfront projects as being located in areas of “high risk.”

What if it were Tokyo that faced such devastation?

According to estimates in a report from the National Land Agency of Japan published in 1988, 152,000 people would die in the event of an earthquake of similar magnitude to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 — 7.9 on the Richter scale. The government of Tokyo announced more moderate figures in 1991: 9,363 dead and 148,068 injured.


The floor of Tokyo Bay could shift over a large area from Yokohama to Chiba and beyond in the case of a major earthquake, resulting in fires and toxic fuel released from the many factories located around the bay, according to analysis by
Peter Yanev of EQE International, a natural disaster risk management company. Yanev also fears deadly tidal waves striking the Tokyo region.

Haresh Shah, professor at Stanford University and a seismologist of international renown, assesses the cost of damage in the case of a major earthquake in Tokyo at no less than 180 billion yen. In short, such an eventuality would bring the financial and political heart of the country to a complete halt.

To prevent this doomsday scenario, many citizens have called on local Japanese governments to create a new institution modeled on the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. government agency that oversees the rescue operations in officially recognized disaster-affected areas. Former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa understood the need to manage disasters differently in Japan, but rather thought the key lay in the mobilization of existing military and police forces.

“A new organization would be useless if the government continues to hesitate to call on the army and waits four days to accept the intervention of a French rescue team, as was the case during the disaster of [Kobe],” he wrote in the
Yomiuri Shimbun.

The ideal solution may be somewhere between the two extremes: an independent agency with a clear, well-defined mission of overseeing emergency operations that are shared by existing organizations.

Prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, in the meantime, made his own proposal at the
World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in March — namely, the forming of an Asian Conference on Disaster Reduction. Though not a bad idea in theory, it is clear that such a forum could not solve the immediate problems of earthquake prevention and relief organization.

If there is one lesson that the earthquake in Kobe showed the world — rescuers, victims, survivors and observers alike — it is that when it comes to saving lives after such a cataclysmic event, we must stop talking and start acting. Just ask people in my neighborhood what they think.