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Opinion

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.

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But progress came at great cost. That “makeover” became for some a “takeover,” as residents of modest means saw their property downsized or expropriated. Japan’s emergency management office officially refused to allow government aid to go directly to residents (although some local governments ignored the edict), foisting hardship on the city’s elderly and disabled populations, as well as the working poor. Public hostility mounted. On the first anniversary of the quake, the city’s vice-mayor committed suicide. Eventually, city leaders reversed their previous stances and invited greater community involvement; but among some, resentment continues to this day.

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New Orleans Katrina recovery: a light touch

In New Orleans, where I live, the heavy hand was forsaken for the light touch. After hurricane Katrina and the resulting levee failures swamped the city, Mayor Nagin unwittingly became the “Anti-Sasayama.” Moved by the passion of neighborhood activists (and political expediency), Mr. Nagin embraced a laissez-faire approach to the rebuilding: Property owners, aided by Louisiana’s federally-funded “Road Home” program, would be permitted to rebuild nearly anywhere they pleased.

Even so, market forces appear to be driving private investment (and residents) toward the more protected areas near the city’s core. And, almost against the odds, New Orleans seems headed toward a future that is more economically robust, inclusive, sustainable, and safe. A new city master plan, developed with significant public input, is now in effect with the force of law. Nearly $15 billion in levee improvements offer an unprecedented (although many say insufficient) level of protection. Civic engagement is at an all-time high.

What Japan needs now: a balance

The redevelopment challenges facing coastal Japan have already eclipsed those faced in either Kobe or New Orleans. (Estimated recovery costs now exceed $300 billion.) The situation requires a mindset beyond that of Sasayama or Nagin – or rather a mindset that is in between. Japan’s leaders must be honest with the public about what coastal areas can be reasonably protected against future surges and what areas cannot be, particularly given climate-induced sea-level rise. Design and safety standards for buildings, rail lines, and nuclear facilities must also be addressed.

On the other hand, local communities should be brought into the process early to make sure that proposals reflect cultural values and local attitudes toward risk. The needs of those hardest hit by tragic events – coastal fishers, the elderly, those exposed to radioactive emissions – should be given special attention.

Despite enormous devastation, I have no doubt that Japan’s suffering population will rebound. Societies smashed by quakes and floods always have. The real question is “How?”. The curtain is about to rise.

Robert R.M. Verchick is a former environmental official in the Obama administration and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World.”

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