In Japan Tsunami City, People Power Turns Disaster Into Opportunity

Building a “new city” from the wreckage of Higashi-Matsushima has required careful planning and consensus among citizens on how to protect them from future threats.

Debris covers the ground at Naruse Daini Junior High School in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, 06 April, 2011 Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patricia D. Lockhart

CHIANG RAI, Thailand, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On March 11, 2011, local official Shuya Takahashi was in Higashi-Matsushima city hall when a towering tsunami struck the scenic, low-lying coastal city in northeast Japan.

The 10.5-metre (34.5-ft) wave, triggered by a huge off-shore earthquake, inundated 65 percent of the city, partially or fully destroyed almost three out of four residential homes, and left some 1,100 people – 3 percent of the city’s population – dead or missing, including Takahashi’s university-age daughter.

Aerial view of the tsunami disaster: taken in March 2011 by the German TerraSAR-X Earth-observation satellite. Image: DLR German Aerospace Center / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“I myself lost my family and home, and I am one of the disaster victims, (and I ) happened to be in charge of reconstruction of the city,” he told a two-day conference this week bringing together researchers, environmentalists and government officials from East Asia to discuss ways to make the region’s cities safe, environmentally friendly and inclusive.

“(The) tsunami reached a school which was a designated evacuation site. The railway line was swept away… The residents, including us, the city officials, did not know what to do,” Takahashi recalled.

“I started to help the people. Things were under water. I realised then that Thailand, Japan, or anywhere – disasters can happen anytime,” he added in an interview on the sidelines of the gathering in northern Thailand.

The magnitude 9.0 quake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, triggered a massive tsunami which knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl a quarter of a century earlier.

Higashi-Matsushima was one of the areas worst-hit by the tsunami that killed some 18,000 people in total.

Tasked with leading the city’s reconstruction, Takahashi said he was determined that “we should not allow what we experienced to be repeated again”.

Since then, the city has embarked on an ambitious, two-track recovery programme: rebuilding a better city and taking part in the national government’s “Future City Initiative” to tackle environmental issues and an ageing society.

damaged building in Higashi Matsushima following the 311 Tohoku Tsunami in Ishinomaki, Japan. Photo: Infradept / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


But developing a “new city” is no easy task. “It needs very careful planning and very good consensus among the citizens,” Takahashi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Higashi-Matsushima, that meant holding multiple meetings until a consensus was reached that 7,000 people, or 17.5 percent of the population, would relocate to seven sites on higher ground. Particular attention was paid to proximity to public transport and the ability to move entire communities so their close bonds could be retained.

There is now a 2-km (1.24-mile) no-build zone along the shoreline.

The city has also gone on a renewable energy drive. It has built a large-scale solar power plant at the site of a park that was swept away by the tsunami, installed solar panels on the roof of its emergency evacuation centre, and set up a subsidy system for residents who want to install solar panels at home.

Higashi-Matsushima’s production of solar power is now 20 times greater than in 2011, Takahashi said.

Last June, the city also launched a disaster-resilient “eco-town”, comprising 85 public housing units with a micro-grid powered by solar energy and biodiesel plus battery storage, which can be linked to the local hospital in case of an emergency.

These projects and activities are managed by the Higashi-Matsushima Organization for Progress and Economy, Education and Energy (HOPE), an association set up to provide support during the tsunami recovery period. Its members include businesses, academics, the government and residents.

It has not all been plain sailing, however.

One of the biggest challenges, Takahashi said, was resettling the residents of Nobiru, the devastated area where Takahashi himself comes from. They were previously living in a zone of 230 hectares (568 acres), but their new location is far smaller at 92 hectares. It is “very compact” but much safer, he said.

People Power

While critics have derided Japan’s recovery from the 2011 crisis as slow and incomplete, all Higashi-Matsushima’s relocation sites were ready in five years, and it is now embarking on bigger infrastructure projects including building sea walls and better road systems.

It will take another two to three years for these to be completed, Takahashi said.

He credited the city’s relatively quick recovery to the high level of civic mobilisation by its citizens before the disaster.

In the immediate aftermath, when the city office stopped functioning, it was community groups that sprang into action – setting up soup kitchens, organising the search for missing persons and discussing recovery plans.

Residents also sorted the enormous amount of waste and rubble – 100 years’ worth – by hand, managing to recycle 99 percent.

Still, help from the national government was crucial, Takahashi said, citing measures such as a temporary tax increase of 2.1 percent to fund the reconstruction.

Asked if he had entertained the thought of leaving the city after such a personal tragedy, he smiled and shook his head. “It’s my destiny. There’s no choice,” he said.

Reporting by Thin Lei Win, editing by Megan Rowling for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.