A former U.S. government expert on emergency management has questioned whether Japan is applying lessons learned the hard way after the 2011 tsunami to its response to the Kyushu quakes.
Leo Bosner, 69, who worked for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for 29 years, says an integrated response may not have been in place for the disaster last month.
He said he identified multiple problems when studying Japan’s “disastrous” response to the 2011 disaster and believes there have been no major improvements. “I am a little concerned that these problems may be continuing,” he said.
“It is too early to make a definitive evaluation of the response to the Kumamoto disaster, but recent news headlines have indicated possible problem areas,” he said, adding that these range from resorting to the U.S. military for airlift of supplies to the language barrier for foreigners.
Bosner said the lack of a unified system for disaster response in Japan could cause even the best-intended efforts to become bogged down.
“For example, various towns, prefectures and organizations may send food and other supplies to a disaster area, but if there is a shortage of people at the disaster site to sort out and distribute the supplies, the supplies don’t get distributed to those in need in a timely manner,” he said.
Other problems, he said, include Japan’s lack of full-time, permanent, professional disaster management staff and of a strong connection between the governmental and nongovernmental response to disasters.
“One thing to me that is a major barrier is that in the Japan government offices, people change the job every two years . . . so there is no time to build up an expertise,” Bosner said.
“I really think that if the Japanese government wants to do a strong job in disasters, they need to somehow establish a permanent staff who will stay involved over the years,” he said.
“In Japan, because everything is so spread out in the government and not working together, in my view, it is very inefficient,” he said. “I think if Japan could centralize this function more, it would be cheaper.”
Bosner also proposed transferring officials in or between the central and regional governments while always working as disaster management specialists.
“My thought was, ‘What if some worked in the Japan national government in Tokyo for two years as a disaster planner?’ But then let’s say when he rotated he would go to some other industry but would still be a disaster planner in that industry and then maybe if he rotated to a prefecture, to a city, he would be a disaster planner in that prefecture or that city.
“If they did this, in about five or 10 years, Japan would have a real network of experienced disaster planners who understood the system and could work together. But right now they don’t have this.”
Bosner said the United States integrated all the functions to respond to disasters into FEMA and turned a weak agency into one that works properly.
The administration of President Bill Clinton turned FEMA around, but that of George W. Bush downsized it, which backfired when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Bush “just appointed political friends to be in charge of FEMA who did not know anything about disasters,” he said.
“So when Katrina came, they could not give the orders, they could not make the decisions, they did not know what to do. It was terrible. For those of us who worked at FEMA, it was so disappointing because we were helpless.”
Bosner said that if there is “a political will” rather than increased budgets, Japan will be able to have a better system to respond to disasters just as the United States did.
“In Japan, there are plenty of people, in my view, who would be excellent for running a Japan FEMA or managing it . . . if the ministers of the Cabinet of the prime minister agree and say, ‘We must do this,’ ” he said. “But until they make that decision, nothing can happen.”
Bosner served as an emergency management expert at FEMA from 1979 to 2008. He stayed in Japan from 2000 to 2001 studying its emergency management system. His current job includes being an adjunct lecturer in the Emergency Medical Systems Graduate School of Tokyo’s Kokushikan University.