Wreckage in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

After the disaster

UD prof, doctoral student examine Japan's shelters, housing after earthquake

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10:36 a.m., Aug. 31, 2011--It has been said that natural disasters are equalizers that affect the rich and poor, the healthy and sick, and the young and the old alike.

But Tricia Wachtendorf, associate director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center (DRC), whose scholarship examines disaster mitigation and emergency responses, disagrees. 

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“People are impacted differently,” the sociology professor explains. “For example, the frail elderly might have difficulty evacuating quickly enough. People with a range of disabilities might experience challenges in shelters without power or limited accessibility.  Low-income populations might have limited supplies on hand to survive days without outside help, or might be challenged in the recovery phase.” 

Wachtendorf, whose research is currently featured on the National Science Foundation (NSF) website, has witnessed this disparity firsthand in numerous disasters: following the 9/11 attacks, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan. 

Soon after the Japan disaster, DRC deployed visiting scholar Takumi Miyamoto, a doctoral student from Osaka University whose research examines long-term earthquake recovery. Miyamoto volunteered in Miyagi Prefecture from March 27 through May 30 and debriefed DRC staff on the disaster upon his return. 

“The most important piece of disaster relief,” he says, “is direct communication—meeting survivors face-to-face and experiencing their living conditions.”  

In June, as part of a social science team led by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) through funding from NFS, Wachtendorf and doctoral student Rochelle Brittingham joined nine other academics, emergency managers, and urban planners on a reconnaissance mission to Japan. There, they traveled along the coast visiting many tsunami-impacted communities, talking with survivors and attending briefings by government officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community leaders and researchers. 

“The catastrophe has generated surprises, unprecedented challenges, and new issues in multiple domains of disaster risk reduction,” the 11-member team wrote in an article appearing in the September issue of Earthquake Spectra, the professional journal of EERI.

“This was a widespread event impacting three prefecture jurisdictions with little available space,” Wachtendorf explains. “Where to sort the debris? Where to put in place temporary housing, let alone permanent housing? How the nuclear meltdown has impacted the resources needed? This complex catastrophe continues to challenge the country months later, and we have much to learn from their experiences.” 

Because of ongoing collaborations between the DRC and Center for Disabilities Studies examining emergency preparedness training for people with disabilities in Delaware, Wachtendorf was particularly interested in the disaster’s impact on those with disabilities, including “frail elders, who we heard a lot about, and non-elders with a range of impairments, who we heard very little about.”

“Officials in Japan had very little information on the actual experiences of people with physical disabilities, and particularly those with cognitive and developmental impairments,” she says.

In the tsunami-affected areas of Miyagi Prefecture, for example, more than 53,000 individuals had been previously identified as having disabilities, but the Japan Disability Forum was only able to contact 1,386 of those individuals as of June 17. Although routine registries were in place for those who receive disability-related government assistance, many jurisdictions were reluctant to share information with social welfare organizations because of privacy restriction concerns. 

“Without an ability to track persons with disabilities after this disaster, social welfare organizations, researchers and advocates were unable to determine what is happening with large numbers of disaster survivors who live with disabilities,” Wachtendorf says.  

Some communities had prior arrangements for organizations to open and operate specially designated shelters. Other communities, she found, were reluctant to open these shelters out of fear they “wouldn’t meet standards.” 

And while the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 spiked huge increases in volunteerism, it appeared that the 2011 earthquake—the largest in Japanese history—saw significantly fewer volunteers. One of Wachtendorf’s Japanese colleagues suggested that these  “best practices” may have served as a deterrent in a culture that values rules and guidelines.  

“It’s an interesting line of research worth pursuing, ” Wachtendorf noted. “We want to be as clear as possible in our plans, but we don’t want to discourage the improvisation and flexibility inherent in successful disaster responses.” 

Because the EERI trip was intended to serve as a starting point for more systematic studies, faculty and students from the Disaster Research Center will be making more trips to the country to continue their research on volunteer efforts and survivors with disabilities.

“Our hope is to advance social science understanding about disasters,” she says, “and to understand the applied implications—the ‘so what’ factor—of what improvements reduce loss of life, improve quality of life and facilitate recovery in an meaningful way.”

Article by Artika Rangan

Photos courtesy Tricia Wachtendorf

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