Commentary / Japan

Natural disasters: Preparing for the unexpected

by Robert D. Eldridge

This year there seems to be a particularly large number of typhoons to strike Japan. While the frequency is high, fortunately the damage has not been as bad as it could have been. With this said, the people in Chiba Prefecture and other parts of the Kanto region were indeed heavily impacted by Typhoon Faxai last month, enduring a loss of electrical power, water and other services.

Elderly people and others died due to heat strokes brought on by the lack of electricity for air conditioning and other critical medical services. One elderly woman died after six hospitals refused to accept her due to the decline in the capabilities of the hospital as a result of the power outage. It is particularly sad when people survive a disaster only to lose their life in the physical and emotional struggle afterward.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the typhoons in recent years in Japan have not taken the number of lives that they once did.

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the Ise Bay Typhoon, which killed approximately 5,000 people, on Sept. 26, 1959. Packing winds of 240 kph, Typhoon Vera, as it was known at the time, heavily damaged Aichi Prefecture, where the city of Nagoya is located — the neighboring prefectures of Mie and Nara.

The Ise Bay Typhoon, considered the 10th worst typhoon in the Asia-Pacific, was the worst typhoon to strike Japan in recorded history. It was also the worst weather-related disaster in Japan since Typhoon Muroto killed 3,066 people in 1934 in the Kinki region.

U.S. bases and installations, of which there were more in Japan at the time, were also impacted. For example, Yokota Air Base was left without electricity and water service — other facilities, such as Fuchu Air Station, Showa Air Station — Tachikawa Air Base, had damage to buildings on those installations, including the roof of the Far East Airways and Aircraft Control System regional headquarters being blown off. Specific units, such as the 6000th Support Wing, suffered damage, too.

But most affected were local residents. Close to 1 million were rendered homeless in the path of destruction that went across central Honshu to Niigata and then up to Hokkaido.

To assist in the response, Adm. Frederick N. Kivette, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, who had previously and proudly mentioned in an interview with newsmen in Taiwan that his fleet “was always ready for anything,” quickly dispatched the USS Kearsarge, an Essex-class aircraft carrier (CV-33), to Ise Bay. The Kearsarge was on patrol at the time as part of 7th Fleet Operations but it made it to Nagoya quickly. Once there, the crew worked seamlessly together and with host nation officials.

In addition, there was a close partnership with the U.S. Consulate in the area, with the consular officer Harvey J. Feldman being picked up by military plane at Nagoya Airport and brought out to the carrier to help coordinate. His boss, Consul Gen. Joseph F. Donelan, Jr., was quite a hero at that time, too. A veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, Donelan, who assumed his post in August 1958, found himself in charge of the relief operations.

In an interview 40 years later, Donelan explained that “the natural disaster … almost crushed the city of Nagoya — in passing flooded the port areas, uprooted trees, power lines, smashed thousands of homes and killed [many]. … Power was out for days, houses down the street from me were sliced in half; my car was immobilized under some huge trees which fell — I got to the Consulate the morning of the first day by bicycle. I got in touch with the Embassy through the Japanese Tactical Air Wing Communications operation in nearby Gifu. Relief supplies were [sent] in by Northwest Airlines.

“We had 48 American helicopters — Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force — working off a huge field in front of the City Hall. The Kearsarge sent boats and medical parties out over the flooded areas, the choppers dropped food, blankets and fire wood to the little islands of people on the clumps of land which had been the high ground — they picked up hundreds and hundreds of people and lifted them to safety.”

The teamwork demonstrated between the consulate and the U.S. military was crucial, as was the partnership with the local community and the Self-Defense Forces. The importance of such relationships is even truer today, which we saw in the response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Knowing this, earlier this year in February, I included the historical insights I had about the Ise Bay Typhoon and my personal experiences with Operation Tomodachi in a crisis management simulation exercise for college and graduate school students at a public university in Nagoya.

The role-playing exercise was done on the last day of the intensive five-day course on disasters and culture: the effect of a nation’s crisis management system, thinking and other cultural traits and characteristics on the ability of that country to respond to disasters that impact a particular region.

Approximately 20 students, including a former fireman, an international nonprofit organization worker and several international students worked alongside Japanese students to come with solutions to the problems thrown at them. The main part of the exercise concerned a magnitude 8 earthquake and tsunami in the Tokai area off Mie Prefecture, which devastated Nagoya and surrounding areas from Wakayama to Shizuoka prefectures.

The earthquake in our simulation occurred on Sept. 2, a day after Disaster Preparedness Day. But I chose September for a couple of more reasons as well — the hot, muggy weather would make the disposal of the thousands of bodies and the prevention of disease even more critical than in previous real-world situations, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake (which I was in) and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (which I helped respond to). Furthermore, September is ripe for typhoons.

Just as the students were getting a handle on the response to the earthquake/tsunami’s destruction, I took a pre-arranged call from the Japan Meteorological Agency informing the group that a storm of Ise Bay Typhoon proportion was heading their way in two days’ time. They had to figure out the response for something they truly were not expecting or ready for.

The review session afterward was a good chance to remind them that disasters are getting more and more complex. The largest loss of life in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake was actually caused by fire. In the Great Hanshin Earthquake, collapsed structures claimed the most lives. In the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami caused the largest number of fatalities. (Sadly, “related deaths,” a euphemism for post-disaster suicides and illness, also took a large number of lives in the Tohoku region — have taken the lives of more than three times the number of victims of the earthquake itself following the Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016.)

In a future Nankai Trough quake, which I have studied intensely and tried to prepare for, it will likely be a combination of the three — collapsed structures, fire — tsunami — but disease and related deaths could easily be factors raising the death toll. We need to be prepared and be ready for just about anything.

And this was the whole point of the exercise: to expect the unexpected.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “Before Operation Tomodachi” (Reed International, 2018) and “Megaquake: How Japan and the World Should Respond” (Potomac, 2015).

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