Recovery in Japan: Will it be heavy-handed or hands-off?
Japan's leaders have two contrasting models for disaster recovery from recent history: post-Katrina New Orleans or post-earthquake Kobe, Japan. But Japan needs an approach that strikes a balance between authoritarian takeover and laissez-faire makeover.
One month after Japan’s ruinous tsunami, fear and uncertainty reign. The crisis at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant is now ranked on par with the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Many of the more than 160,000 homeless survivors live temporarily in schools and gymnasiums, their “households” defined by interior walls of corrugated cardboard. Factories and rail lines are crippled. The national economy is on the ropes. How will this proud and resourceful nation recover?Skip to next paragraph
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In policymaking circles, the questions are already flying. What parts of the landscape should be restored? How safe should sea walls and nuclear reactors be? How should the public participate in this debate? Looking to the recent history of disaster recovery, leaders are given two contrasting models for how to approach rebuilding: the heavy-handed approach of Kobe, Japan’s Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 or the hands-off approach of Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Should leaders favor the heavy hand or the light touch? If history’s a guide, the path will be muddy. But already it may be taking shape.
Disaster experts sometimes refer to the recovery stage of a catastrophe as the “third act,” where Act One introduces the terrifying blow and Act Two emphasizes emergency response. The longest and least dramatic part of the story, Japan’s third act of recovery will determine how this tragedy is finally understood.
Kobe earthquake recovery: a takeover
That was the case following Japan’s Great Hanshin earthquake, which hit the city of Kobe in 1995. In 20 seconds, that powerful quake had demolished the nation’s sixth-largest city, claiming more than 6,000 lives and causing more than $100 billion in damage. Within an hour, the city’s mayor, Mr. Sasayama was surveying the ruins by car; an hour after that, he was reinventing the city’s master plan based on what he had seen.
Sasayama’s vision for redevelopment, and the iron resolve with which he achieved it, are legend among disaster-recovery experts. Hoping to avoid a chaos of shanties, the mayor quickly imposed a building moratorium and collaborated with national politicians to marshal a multi-billion dollar makeover of Kobe. Over the course of ten years, a city once characterized by narrow winding streets and rickety cottages had been transformed into a parade of boulevards, sleek condominiums, and fountains of high-rise towers, all designed with the latest safety standards in mind.