The Great East Japan Earthquake was like yesterday for me. I was privileged at the time ten years ago to have been a part of the U.S. military response to the disaster known as Operation Tomodachi. I have also been lucky enough to continue to be involved with the affected area ever since, recently completing my 15th trip there.

These trips have been to both assist in the recovery process (fukkō) as well as to help prevent the fading away (fūka) of the lessons learned in that tragedy. It is important for each and every person to learn what they can about preparing for and responding to disasters, so that they themselves do not become victims and that they can also help others whether near or far.

In March 2006, exactly five years prior to the 2011 disaster, I co-authored a set of recommendations on the use of U.S. forces in a large-scale natural disaster in Japan and republished those proposals in these pages (“Time for a Japan-U.S. Mutual Assistance Agreement,” March 30, 2011) while serving in Sendai as the political advisor to the Forward Command Element of the U.S. Marines/U.S. Forces Japan, located at Camp Sendai, headquarters of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northeastern Army.

The recommendations were based on my personal experiences in the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake as a graduate student at Kobe University, my involvement in helping to plan the early response to the 2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami as the Scholar-in-Residence of Marine Corps Forces Pacific in Hawaii, and a decade of research, writings, simulations, exercises, classes and conferences.

The disaster demonstrated that, indeed, U.S. forces were needed in responding to a disaster here, but overconfidence in Japan’s own abilities and political unwillingness to get involved with the politically-charged U.S. military at the local, prefectural, and national levels prevented coordination and cooperation from happening ahead of time. The disaster brought the U.S. and Japanese militaries together in a way that had not previously existed. Interestingly, it also brought the three branches of the Self-Defense Forces together in an unprecedented way, forging (and in some cases forcing) jointness among them.

But the second main pillar of my recommendations were to me as important, if not more. Namely, I stressed the need for potentially vulnerable local communities to work with the U.S. military ahead of time in a disaster — to get to know one another, visit each other’s community (the bases and units, in the case of the U.S. military) and discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, concerns and questions. Of course, when asked (through proper, official channels), the U.S. military will respond, but it can do so better if it already has a working relationship with community leaders and counterparts, and mutual trust is established.

Involving the U.S. military ahead of time is necessary because of the scale of potential disasters facing Japan, and the isolation of some communities along the coasts or in mountainous areas. The SDF, which is responsible first and foremost for the defense of the country, will find itself numerically stretched to be everywhere at the same time, even when its reserves are called up (as seen during the 2011 disaster response).

Of course, there will be others involved as well — police, fire, and other first responders, government officials, volunteers, domestic and foreign nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. But while they each have important missions, they cannot replace the rapid and large response capabilities of the military, whose role is critical in the beginning.

The U.S. military, already in Japan, thus can play a supporting role to the SDF (and has done so in 2011, as well as in the 1964 Niigata Earthquake and the 1959 Ise Bay Typhoon relief operations). But it is best to work out these arrangements ahead of time, especially in a Nankai Trough Earthquake scenario, which will affect an area from Shizuoka to Miyazaki and beyond, rather than meeting each other in the middle of a tsunami-struck airfield runway exchanging business cards there.

While my 2006 recommendations were unfortunately ignored, after 2011 I was allowed to pursue these arrangements and succeeded in developing official relations between the U.S. Marines, for whom I served as the deputy assistant chief of staff at the time, and Shizuoka, Kochi, Wakayama and Mie prefectures — the most vulnerable of the vulnerable — as well as half a dozen more “unofficial” relations with key actors and organizations in Aichi, Tokushima, Ehime, Okayama and Hyogo prefectures.

Each minute counted, as we did not know when the next large-scale disaster would hit, and thus each minute that allowed these relationships to grow and develop was a blessing. But as time elapses, and especially as affected areas recover and get rebuilt, the level of complacency increases.

This is the biggest concern of many who have experienced disasters or been intimately involved in the responses: Those in leadership or the general public will forget the lessons learned and be doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.

It is often said that “generals fight the last battle.” The same could probably be said for disaster responders. However, each disaster presents new challenges.

Today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic (a disaster in and of itself), it is harder to assemble volunteers following a disaster in the first place, and a local or prefectural government might feel the need to institute restrictions on having out-of-area volunteers coming in, like Kumamoto Prefecture did following its flooding last summer.

Moreover, COVID-19 has made it more difficult to manage evacuation shelters, due to social-distancing and sanitary requirements, with more facilities necessary to handle the overflow. Further, the acquisition and dispatch of additional supplies (now masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, etc., are needed in greater volume) need to be included in the calculations.

And this is just with COVID-19, which changes the dynamics of previous relief operations.

What I fear even more is a quadruple (or more) wallop of a Nankai Trough Earthquake, that would likely trigger a massive tsunami. In my estimates, it will be like a 1923 Kanto Great Earthquake (with its destructive fires causing the largest number of deaths), a 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (with its collapsed houses and other structures causing the most deaths), and a 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (with its very devastating tidal waves that was responsible for most of those killed).

Depending on the season, there might even be a destructive typhoon immediately after on par with the 1959 Ise Bay disaster, which would disrupt relief operations and put first responders and volunteers in harm’s way. If in the summer, it will be particularly difficult to deal with the disposal of bodies in a timely manner. There are not enough morgues, refrigerated vehicles or crematoriums to handle the load.

My point in raising just some of these concerns is to argue that while lessons have to be learned, we cannot at the same time get stuck in rigid ways of thinking about responses based on the past and have to be prescient enough to anticipate all future scenarios. I hated hearing the word soteigai (unexpected) after March 2011 because I knew it was not unexpected.

Not only are the deaths at the time of the disaster sad, but so is the fact that so many people die as a result of physical or mental illness afterward amid the despair of losing family members, one’s home and possessions, one’s livelihood, etc. As readers may know, more people have died from what is euphemistically called kanrenshi (disaster related death) after the April 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake than in the earthquake itself. Furthermore, kanrenshi is responsible for more deaths (almost 3,800) than the 3,700 killed and missing in the most devastated area in Tohoku, Ishinomaki City.

Just like the disappointment in winning a war but losing the peace, it is doubly sad to lose a person who was once saved in the disaster but who lost hope or health. Post-disaster care and recovery and pre-disaster mitigation and resilience are very much interconnected. The balance between recovery and remembering is a delicate one.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “Operation Tomodachi” and “Before Operation Tomodachi” and numerous other books and articles about disaster preparedness and response. He serves as the Director, North Asia, Global Risk Mitigation Foundation.

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