OSAKA — So far, the response to Friday’s earthquake and tsunami has been better than the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake thanks to better official communications between Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians and local governments, and also the existence of the Internet and social media.
But those who experienced the 1995 quake, which killed more than 6,400 people and measured 7.3 on the Japanese scale, are concerned there are not enough trained medical personnel in the country to deal with the disaster, and that those who are now in northeastern Japan will soon be overwhelmed.
Worse, the damage at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facilities and the threat of massive radiation leaks presents an unprecedented set of problems facing rescue workers and medical personnel.
While Tokyo has plans in place for a nuclear accident and plans for responding to an earthquake, responding to both at the same time with the added threat of aftershocks and more tsunami is something nobody planned for.
“It’s a very dangerous situation. You can’t really compare the Kobe quake and what happened last Friday. But as we saw in 1995, it was difficult to find enough doctors and medical personnel in the days after the quake, and this was in a part of Japan that is urbanized and home to many doctors,” said Mitsutoshi Sato, 51, an Osaka-based university professor who survived the quake.
“Given media reports these past few years about shortages of Japanese doctors and the need for foreign nurses, especially in rural areas, medical care is an even greater care this time around,” he added.
On the plus side, the way Tokyo has handled the response has received generally positive reviews. Kansai area officials, media and many residents agree that the establishment of disaster response policies on the part of the central government after the Kobe quake has led to better coordination between government agencies, and allowed for a more rapid response on the part of not only Tokyo but other prefectures, who are now sending aid.
In the days following the Kobe quake, confusion reigned, and to many in Kobe, it seemed nobody in Tokyo was in charge, as local requests for aid got held up in red tape.
A request by the Hyogo prefectural governor to send in the Self-Defense Forces took time to approve, and coordinating assistance from other prefectures took, in some cases, weeks to finalize.
This time, the response has been much quicker, thanks to post-1995 changes in the way the government responds to natural disasters. Self-Defense Forces personnel arrived quickly.
Aid from local governments, in the form of food, water, medicine and helpers was quickly coordinated. Various prefectural governments, including Hyogo Prefecture, were on the way Monday morning to the affected areas with food, water, medicine and emergency personnel.
One of the more noticeable changes in rescue and relief policies is the quick acceptance by Japan of international assistance, and the better efforts for getting them on-site.
In 1995, stories of Swiss rescue dogs being held up in quarantine at Kansai airport and of Foreign Ministry bureaucrats wanting to first escort international emergency personnel to local hotels for lunch as soon as they landed rather than take them directly to the devastated areas were legion.
This time, international rescue teams are arriving with less bureaucratic delay.
This includes the U.S. military. In 1995, assistance by the U.S. military was extremely limited, due to political and logistical reasons. Now, however, the U.S. Marines in Okinawa were able to send cargo aircraft and transport helicopters with humanitarian support.
Other U.S. Marines in Okinawa involved in assistance efforts are on ships and expected to arrive off the damaged areas in a few days.
The Kobe earthquake also gave birth to a surge of individual volunteer networks. Internet blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Mixi, and other social media have allowed volunteers and those who support their efforts to keep in touch, learn about the latest developments in the devastated areas, send aid quickly, and coordinate their efforts in northeastern Japan.
“In 1995, a lot of people in Kobe didn’t even have cell phones, and thousands of volunteers just showed up, often with no knowledge of what was going on. This time, volunteers have a much better idea of what they’re getting into,” said Sato.
Thus, the lessons the government, the international community and volunteers bring to northeastern Japan were learned in the Kobe quake and its aftermath, and are being applied in a manner that has amazed many international observers.
But the Fukushima nuclear plant remains the great unknown, and the greatest threat to recovery efforts.
All who are heading to northeastern Japan worry that a massive radiation leak could mean many of the lessons learned since 1995 about disaster response could ultimately prove meaningless.