Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Unlearned lessons

Don't know why, but for some reason I decided to "google" about the Great Hanshin--Kobe--earthquake in 1995 and came across an interesting article by the Japan Policy Research Institute.

While somewhat shocking to read, it didn't come as a real surprise to know that Japan was so ill-equipped to handle such massive destruction. What's even more troubling is that I don't think Japan has learned from their past mishandling of that tragic event.

I'm guessing that Japan is no better than America when it comes to overstating their emergency preparedness. National pride, as well as a multi-layered bureaucracy, can be a country's greatest undoing. The recent hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana proved how difficult it is to handle a crisis of such magnitude. America's bureaucracy is daunting but Japan's is so multi-layered that in an emergency it would be like trying to move a mountain with a pair of chopsticks.

Here's an abbreviated listing of Japan's shortcomings in handling the Kobe earthquake:

1. Overconfidence in the ability to withstand earthquakes.

2. Lack of local preparedness for natural disasters.

3. Ineffectual crisis management in Tokyo.

4. Private companies appeared more able than the government to respond quickly and effectively to the victims' needs.

5. Reluctance to accept aid from abroad.

6. Differential treatment of foreigners.

7. Selective reporting by the mass media.

Yesterday one of the universities where I teach had an "Earthquake Emergency with Fire" drill. Students and staff were asked to use a cell phone call-in system to report their safety. None of my students, nor I, had been given any information about how to use the call-in system. Worse than that, the alarm never sounded in our building.

This was a prime example of how the multi-layered Japanese system will never be able to pull itself together to manage any kind of crisis, especially natural disasters. After the destructive earthquake in Niigata one year ago, it took the Japanese government nearly two weeks to get simple aid such as blankets and water to victims.

This happened despite the Kobe earthquake of 1995 with its supposed "lessons learned."

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