Disaster the mother of emergency innovation, Sendai U.N. expo shows

by Elaine Kurtenbach


Mankind is powerless to prevent calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes, but in Japan there’s a flourishing industry in devising ways to cope.

Some of the products on display at an exhibition on the sidelines of a recent U.N. disaster conference in Sendai featured high-tech innovations and new materials. But many were just inventive, practical solutions for such challenges as quickly getting people out of harm’s way.

Masayoshi Nakamura’s Jinriki, for example, are custom-made handles designed for easily hustling wheelchairs over debris and up hills. “I just wanted to do something to help,” said Nakamura, leaping into a wheelchair as he urged a visitor to give it a try.

The snap- and screw-on handles, which turn a wheelchair into a modern version of a jinricksha like the ones seen in old movies, enable a person to push or pull a wheelchair over sand and snow, or up and down stairs, with relative ease.

Nakamura knew from early on that pushing a wheelchair can be hard work, having often pushed his disabled brother around as they played with friends as children. But he was only able to turn it into reality after the March 2011 quake and tsunami struck.

Being able to quickly escape to higher ground was a life-or-death matter when waves up to 40 meters high heaved into Japan’s northeastern coast, including Sendai’s port and coastal suburbs, killing over 18,500 people.

Many of the elderly living Tohoku’s seaside villages could not escape in time. Pioneer Seiko Co.’s people-carrier frame, a bit of a cross between a toddler backpack and an adult-size chair, can be used by a fully grown person to carry another on his or her back.

Exact figures on disaster-related spending and manufacturing are hard to come by. The market spans both government and private spending, and includes an entire universe of goods ranging from tarps and water containers to sophisticated early warning systems for tsunami and typhoons.

Globally, disaster-related spending is on the rise as losses from weather-related catastrophes surge. Heeding estimates showing that $1 spent on prevention can yield up to $36 in savings from losses, in 2012-2014 the World Bank allocated $1.4 billion on preparedness, nearly half the $3 billion committed to postdisaster rebuilding.

On a larger scale, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Products Co. and contractor Shimizu Corp. have developed an “anti-seismic surgical floor” to keep operating tables steady in case of a quake.

As it strives to revive the sluggish economy, the government is aggressively hawking disaster-related technology.

At the U.N. conference, the Japan Bosai Platform Bureau, set up with support from the transport ministry, was offering its one-stop online service center for major construction and building materials companies hoping to export their products and expertise.

The government announced plans this week for a new 10-year risk management strategy intended to halve the estimated deaths and damages in the earthquake-prone Tokyo region. Apart from retrofitting buildings and reducing congestion in fire-prone riverside districts, the government intends to stockpile 72 million meals, 6 million blankets and 54 million portable toilets.

While the earthquake simulator, all-terrain vehicles and other big-ticket items drew the biggest crowds in Sendai, some of the more innovative products were on a much smaller scale. One was the Opticure Splint, made of a resin that when exposed to LED light hardens into a light but strong and supple cast for immobilizing broken limbs, or even whole bodies, in the case of an infant.

“Handling babies whose backs or necks are broken has always been a big problem because there is no neck brace to fit them,” said Yoshikazu Matsumoto of Alcare Ltd. Medical Engineering Laboratory.

On an even smaller scale, Icomes Lab Co., a mechatronics company affiliated with Iwate University in Tohoku, was displaying micropumps that can be used to feed IV drips to a patient without having to keep the bag of solution high enough to rely on gravity.

One of the biggest exhibitors in Sendai was the Japanese military, which was showing off a wide array of vehicles, tents, open-air clinics and portable kitchens it has developed for use in disasters. Self-Defense Forces soldier Kazuma Kita beamed as he explained the use of a huge, open-air public bath that was deployed during the 3/11 crisis to help keep victims and rescuers clean, soothing both bodies and spirits. “We helped 120,000 people to relax,” he stressed.