Japan, Six Years Later

Japan, Six Years Later

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorMy name is Mitch Bixby, and I’m the Team Leader for the Overlook Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET). I’m currently traveling in Tohoku, Japan with a group from Portland State University. We’re here as part of a class called Learn from Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Crisis. We’re exploring the areas most impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE).

Please join us for a discussion about the trip from 3-4:30pm on July 15 at PSU’s Smith Student Union, Room 296/8. Check out the event flyer and RSVP here if you plan to attend.

Below are excerpts from my personal blog. Contact me at OverlookPrepares@gmail.com with questions.

Off and Running

On Monday we were in Sendai, a Portland-sized city up the northern coast. Our class of nine spent the day at Tohoku University, one of several schools in Sendai and a leader is disaster planning for Tohoku (this eight-prefecture region) and for Japan. We’ve heard quite a lot this week about the Tohoku Recovery (meaning the three affected coastal prefectures) and how difficult it’s been. Japan’s planning processes needed to be completely re-written in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE). It took a year to sketch out what planning now looked like, and another year to finalize plans. This period of adjustment, while critical for making wise choices, also prolonged people’s stay in temporary housing. Also, as folks settle in their “temporary” housing, going back to home communities becomes increasingly unlikely. The story repeats itself everywhere we go: the kids are in a new school, the fish patty company’s old buyers have moved on, and there are no jobs in the fixed-up neighborhood.

But without residents, what business would commit to returning? In an extreme example, after six years, the town of Rikuzen-takata’s grocery store will re-open next month. It’s a crazy game of chicken and egg that the Pacific Northwest really wants to get ahead of. Inability to keep people around Portland is a thing that gets talked about a lot in some circles. There’s no easy solution, but surely there must be conversations we can have and ways of prioritizing we can agree to in advance.

Yeah. And that’s the light, fluffy stuff. In the afternoon, we all piled into the bus and drove into Fukushima prefecture. We were headed to the small town of Iwaki, but took the, uh, scenic route. Driving through the little village of Namie, you could tell it was deserted. And then we started seeing roadblocks. Then some with guards. Then… are those radiation detectors? Oh, yes. And there, 20 miles off towards the ocean, is Fukushima Daiichi (“Reactor #1”) – five or six stories of lethal beige. And how many acres of radioactive waste disposal bags, snuggled in next to neighboring rice fields? We lost count. More to tell on Daiichi, but that’s for a Powerpoint. Suffice it to say, it was a very weird, very surreal bus ride.

Coming Up: The little seawall project, or “What does $106 million really get me?” Don’t go anywhere.

A Seawall in Usuiso

Image may contain: sky, ocean, beach, outdoor, nature and waterIt’s a breezy day here on the Tohoku coast. I’m looking out at the ocean from the re-emerging Rikuzen-takata. One thing I’ve noticed (among many), is the widespread use of flags. Tour guides use them to lead their groups, construction sites use them everywhere. They’re usually the long and narrow type, on 6′ poles, now common on the Oregon coast and elsewhere. I gather this type was long-used by Japanese armies, so not really surprising to see them here. Perhaps more odd that it seems familiar.

I left the telling of things at Monday night, in the coastal city of Ishinomaki.  After a huge Japanese dinner on Monday, featuring such unsuspected delicacies as fried chicken cartilage and daikon root soup, we spent Tuesday touring a new seawall in Usuiso.  Pre-GEJE, it was a popular beach town, with good surfing, a little fishing fleet, and several hundred families.  Six years later, the new, higher levees include a large, newly-forested buffer zone and park, but the 14 surviving houses are srill all alone.  Surrounding hills have been flattened to provide fill for the control structures and a flat place for the re-drawn, smaller lots.  Yeah, redrawn.  It’s a kind of ’eminent domain’ called Land Readjustment that allows the government to redivide people’s lots for common structure.  Relatively rare before,  it’s now being done all up and down the coast.  I don’t think folks are necessarily excited about it, but it is what it is.  The relationship between the Japanese and their federal government is somewhat different…possibly more accepting…than in the States.

Our morning tour with the engineers revealed some of the amazing work that’s being done to move and compact each additional foot of soil.  The hillsides all around have gutters and drains, meant to keep them from saturating.  Those drains run right through the new subdivision, picking up overflow from each home’s septic tank before entering a common pipe that drains into the ocean.  Apparently, it’s common practice in less dense areas to deal with sewer this way.  The cost of connecting all, or any, the remote corners of Japan would certainly be huge.  Better to save sewage treatment for cities.  Who here works for Portland’s sewer bureau?  Oh, that’d be me…

During our break, Josh (our program coordinator) and Steve (from Arbor Lodge) and I walked along the seawall, which is now 7 meters high, around 23 feet.  And, while it’s impressive and while it’s low enough that people behind can look over and SEE a tsunami coming (an important criticism of some other seawalls), we couldn’t help but look across the road at the hills and think:  ‘ooo.  It would suck to  climb those.’  It seems there’s still a bit of glibness, some off-handed casualness in the discussion of these large projects.  “Save all that money,” the argument goes.  “Just make people go up.”  Mmm. Easy to say.

After lunch we heard from a guy on Usuiso’s Recovery Committee, who talked about how the recovery was going.  Interesting to hear how the local efforts developed, but, as we left, we stopped at  a shrine to the townspeople who had died.  He followed us, and began telling us about some of the names on the list.  He was remarkably stoic: as a volunteer firefighter, that’s kind of par for the course.  But, these are hard stories and mostly about the kids he had known, and, in some cases, had to retrieve from the wreckage.  Suffice it to say, these were the stories we expected to hear on this excursion, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

After returning to Sendai for the night, we heard from Tohoku University students and faculty Wednesday morning, before heading off to Rikuzen-takata in the afternoon.  More later…

Who Are These People, Anyway?

Yep, still alive over here!  Busy few days, and some minor plan shifts…

As folks start to ask more questions about the week, I realized I’ve never really introduced our class. As near as I can tell, this one-week class was the pilot for future field trips as PSU’s Hatfield School of Government develops a community disaster resilience specialization within their masters of public administration (MPA). The intention is to repeat this trip, for students and not-exactly-students like me, every year.

So, leading the trip were Dr. Masami Nishishiba, department chair and bigwig on community and organizational structure, and Dr. Hiro Ito, professor of economics with a focus on global economics. Obviously, this is grossly simplifies their interests and talents, so, my apologies. Did I mention they’re both awesome? Josh from Hatfield also joined us as program coordinator/’group photo herder extraordinaire and badly needs a vacation right about now. All three were raised in Japan, and all did substantial amounts of translation (both verbal and cultural).

The 9 of us were:
–me [with some preparedness/NET background and a smattering of other stuff] –Barb [working on continuity plans for Portland Parks, is a FEMA reservist and professional badass] –Kate [also working on her masters at PSU, she speaks Japanese, so we bugged her a lot] –Evan [wrapping up his degree in Japanese Studies; bugged HIM a lot, too] –Robin [retired from social work, daughter works with Josh;  always ready with a question] –Larry [nearly retired emergency manager from Medford; always ready with a story, usually about being a paramedic in San Francisco in the ’70s…which, uh…that’s a different blog] –Steve [a fellow NET from the next neighborhood over, he’s a construction manager for a local contracting firm, also in grad school] –Rob [an almost-former architect working on his masters, with a really good camera usually in hand and an eye for detail]

In some important ways, this felt like a bit of a supergoup, with everyone chipping in some key insight or expertise.  There was nowhere we went where someone didn’t say, “oh, you know what this reminds me of…?”  And everyone got to be that person regularly.  I found that impressive and kind of thrilling.    It was also a group that stayed loose all week [although Mitchy got a little frazzled that last day or so…sorry, guys]. Mostly folks were just fun.  It doesn’t always work like that….

Is the Road Supposed To Do That?

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, plant and outdoorSo, back to the tale at hand, where I left off on Wednesday, 6/22, with a brief sketch of the morning in Sendai before going back to the coast.

Our presentation is Wednesday, and I’ve talked with Masami about this, were not good. Some scheduling goofs, sure, and some language stuff, maybe, but no coherent structure, even in the handouts. For me, it gets back to: what kind of information do the Japanese have to give, and what kind of information do we Portlanders need? Obviously, there’s no perfect overlap, so our challenge  as participants is to sort the two out. Personally, I’ve been trying to look at all of this through a NET lens; some talks have fared better than others. Our Wednesdays speakers have done intriguing work in the aftermath, but I struggle to find the relevance to Portland. Labor trends in Northern Japan, no matter how extensive the surveys, just…. I’m still working on it. Someone else in the group may very well be thinking “Oh, you know what that reminds me of?”

After a quick lunch, we jumped in our crazy little buslet, our demi-bus, our busette, and motored up to the mountain road to Rikuzen-takata. I’m putting in a hyphen that isn’t normally there, because it makes it clearer to my English-reading eyes where the pronunciation break is. In case you were wondering.

The trip up to the turnoff was hair-raising, even for me, because the bus’s suspension was so shot that, at highway speeds, any lane change or course correction caused the back of the bus to roll madly from side to side, to the VISIBLE consternation of our fellow motorists. Official protests from within the bus were lodged and received….

Fortunately, the bus behaved better at lower speeds and, once we turned off into the mountains, there was no doubting this road’s intention to have us drive at lower speeds. Which gave us a better look at the farms, the forests, the road up ahead/down below…

It’s worth noting here how much rice is grown in Japan. I’d never given it much thought, but apparently Japan is self-sufficient for rice, if not much else. The paddies are everywhere (EVERYwhere), including stair-stepped up these mountainsides. I’ve seen a bit of corn and some clover cover crops, but so far, it has been 98% rice. It’s like driving through Iowa, except I’d expect to see some soy even there. Here…nope. Is it possible that it’s being imported from Iowa?

This was also the road that will have inspired a post on native/invasive plants in Japan. There’s just no escaping it. OR knotweed. I don’t want to talk about it right now.

But I will.

So, this is the road with real switchbacks, but also something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before: a corkscrew. The road descends off a pass, goes out into the valley on its concrete stilty piers, and then drops down under itself to continue down the valley. It just seemed so random and almost theme-parky, especially where they closed our lane for construction at the very bottom. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture, but I don’t evem know if that’d capture it. Too bad Barb slept through it. Sleeps on buses motoring through hairpin turns: Barb’s pretty hardcore.

As we made it through the mountains to the coast, the rain intensified, making our arrival tour pretty soggy. But that’s more related to other Rikuzen-takata stuff from Thursday. Stay tuned…

A Boost in Rikuzen-Takata

And we thought the seawall project in Usuiso was mammoth. And it is. $106 million is a lot of rolled quarters. But compared to Rikuzen-takata, that’s exactly what it is. It’s sofa change. Steve estimated the dirt required to raise the downtown by 12 meters (38-40 feet) would cost about a billion dollars, assuming downtown was, what, a square mile? Less?

When we arrived Wednesday evening, our planned tour of some key sites mostly got rained out. But we did stop at a service area, unusual to our eyes in that it featured grandstand-style seating, looking out over the… I wasn’t sure. Here it is in the rain (see photo right).

It’s about a 4-story concrete structure, and way up on the top, even above those slit windows, on the tiny roof of this thing, two guys survived the tsunami. Because the water wasn’t QUITE that high. It’s one of the scarier things I can think of, suddenly being a mile “offshore” in the middle of the ocean, when the only thing you know you can do on your own behalf is ‘stay put.’ And that might not be enough, either.

The other things on our tour would’ve been the Miracle Tree, the one surviving pine of an original 70,000. You can see the new seawall in the background (see photo left).

And we also would’ve seen the middle school where the teacher decided, given the duration of the earthquake, to lead students to higher ground beyond the designated meeting place. The designated location was, in fact, overwhelmed, but all the students were safe somewhere else, thanks to someone not following the rules. Mmm.

So, the leading advice from folks on the coast: run like hell when the ground stops shaking. Even after the new seawall, the new tidal gate, the newly-lifted downtown, that’s still the takeaway: go outside and git.

Because around here, that’s apparently easier said than done. It didn’t help that there had been a handful of false alarms, including just two days earlier. It sounds like many people blew it off. I wonder if the Oregon coast would have an equal but opposite reaction, of full-blown panicked dithering, that would amount to essentially the same result. I’d like to think not, but with mid-summer tourists around?

Next up: the value of NET training!

Hurtling Toward the “Finish”

So, I left off in Rikuzentakata, where mostly we heard from folks talking about surviving or rebuilding from a tsunami. The Japanese are pretty good at dealing with earthquakes; it was pointed out more than once that, without the tsunami, the damage and loss of life wouldn’t have been nearly as severe. The tsunami was much tougher.

This is one of those times of sorting out the overlap between what they had to offer and what we really need. Tsunami strategy translates easily to the Oregon coast, but for Portland, it’s not as clear. What other surprise risks do we need to prepare for? Uhh… if we knew….

We did hear from a firefighter, a cool guy we all said we wanted to go for a beer with. He worked for 51 straight days because 25% of their staff died helping people. We all kind of stared. That’s a conflict. That’s THE conflict for NET, but even more for the pros: Do your job fully and pay the price, or hold back and be around to help with the aftermath. Cruel choices.

I think that’s the place our afternoon exercise was coming from: practice making cruel choices, to see how we react. Unfortunately for the class, the exercise wasn’t probably robust enough to get us to the level of panic. Larry, who worked ambulances in the Bay Area during Loma Prieta, was completely unfazed, as was Barb, our FEMA reservist. But even the rest of us were kind of waiting for the stuff to get really horrible. Felt bad for the lady running it, ’cause her exercise had clearly unhinged previous groups. She certainly gave us things to think about, especially given her time in the GEJE aftermath, but I think she also learned a bunch from us.

Friday morning we heard more from city planners about reconstruction, and then headed down the coast to Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki is a city of about 100,000 people, and so more like Portland. There, we heard from one of the city’s disaster managers at the time, a practical man and (understandably) now retired. He talked a bit about shelters (had identified 16, now 100, all reinforced concrete) where they store supplies, like meals (had 12,000; now 50,000, mostly at government expense). Except, here’s the thing. If this happens again, they expect 70,000 displaced people, and assume 2 meals/day. Uh, math concerns….

So, expectations #1 and #2 are that people are bringing food with them, and folks know to do this. Expectation #3 is that food will arrive from outside by day 4, as it did in 2011. I don’t think any of these apply to Portland, so that’s, uh, something to think about.

Wrapping Up the PSU Week

The last day of the program (Saturday, 6/24), was a bit more of a blur than some other days, if maybe only because we spent less time on the bus! In the morning, we heard from a couple of folks working on replacement housing. Six years later, there are still 100,000 people in temporary housing! And the social dynamics are real. Throw a bunch of fishermen among the farmers, a crowd of folks on government assistance among the still-working…it gets tense. The big breakthrough was assigning housing by neighborhood, rather than by lottery, which helped keep some group cohesion. Apparently that was an important factor, although I could imagine it going the other way, too.

After checking out the early construction phase of their new development (adding layers of dirt for a couple years, remember), we visited some of future residents at a local Shinto shrine. Then, off to the oyster farm!  I gotta tell you, I’m not much of an oyster guy, myself, but getting out on the water, and watching these guys do their thing….an excellent way to wrap up the week.

Image may contain: 16 people, people smiling, people standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and natureWell, not totally wrap-up. There was a group photo or TWELVE that had to happen first….but eventually we were, reluctantly, allowed to leave. Our hosts were very sweet.

I’m looking forward to getting everyone’s thoughts and revisiting with the group. We will be presenting our thoughts at PSU from 4-4:30pm on July 15 at (Smith Student Union, #296/8). Join us if you’d like to see the song and dance version (Tohoku: the musical!). Check out the event flyer and RSVP here if you plan to attend.