New Orleans After Katrina a group of us who were community organizers with ACORN in New Orleans were given tickets to go to Japan to see what lessons had been learned from the Kobe earthquake a little more than 10 years before Katrina in 1995 and their recovery as well as precautions Tokyo had taken to protect the parts of that city that were as much as 15 feet below sea level. Looking particularly at Kobe which in the almost dozen years between the disaster and its fires killing more than 6000, had recovered its population and rebuilt, we could not help but be impressed. Walking on the super-levees of Tokyo that dwarfed anything in the American imagination for prevention and protection was also encouraging. Talking to professors, community organizers, and others, it was clear that if anyone had learned something and was prepared to get it right, Japan was the place.
All of which makes the scenes from the one-two punch caused by the 8.9 level earthquake and tsunami in the prefectures of northern Japan, even more disturbing to me. In Kobe the Japanese government had responded with billions for relief within a month of the earthquake and the priorities were first the poor and elderly and their return, all of which was opposite the USA response to Katrina, always too late, and usually too little, and never the poor first, regardless of the images embedded forever in our minds from scores of camera angles. Even with such rapid response, Kobe officials were frank with us that once the elderly and poor were relocated, even though population had returned in absolute terms to the city, a huge percentage of those populations had not been able to come back.
As always, we fool ourselves it seems. The early CNN reports mentioned the rapid response, the preparation, and the improved building standards post-Kobe, which would keep the death toll and damage estimates down. Now only days later the speculation on deaths dwarfs Kobe and is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000, which we can only pray is an exaggeration. And, though building standards may have been improved, there is no way to read about the nuclear plant generations being set at ground level on the assumption that the seawalls were adequate protection, and not feel that our hubris continually tempts fate and returns disaster.
The government in Japan still seems to be doing the right thing time after time, but the Cassandra warning here once again is that we have to have vital and robust governments willing and citizens willing to pay the prices to support adequate infrastructure protection if any of us can ever really feel safe for our families and future.