Many people lost their lives after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake of 2004 during prolonged stays in evacuation centers. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, steps were taken to prevent similar tragedies from occurring, through an assessment of living conditions at evacuation centers.
Improving the Quality of Life at Evacuation Centers
On March 14, 2011, three days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, representatives from five nonprofit organizations (including Special Support Net Kansai and Sendai-Miyagi NPO Center) got together and decided to launch the Joint Project to Support Sufferers through Coordination with Nonprofits. The new organization, called “Tsuna-Pro”—from the Japanese word tsuna for “connection” and a shortened version of the word “project”—was charged with a single mission: identify common overlooked needs of people living in evacuation centers and then put evacuees in touch with experienced NPOs that can help them.
The lessons of previous relief efforts taught the project participants the importance of reading between the lines, as one of the founders of Tsuna-Pro, Taro Tamura, explains:
“After the Great Hanshin Earthquake, more than 900 people passed away in evacuation centers. And during the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, deaths in evacuation centers accounted for more than half of all casualties. We believe that the low quality of life at those centers is a major contributing factor. Survival is not just a matter of getting to an evacuation center, but of having the means to survive while living there.”
The leaders of Tsuna-Pro assumed that government agencies and the many volunteer organizations helping in the recovery effort would take care of people’s basic needs, like providing food, water, warm clothes, and other goods to protect against the cold; they assumed there would be a surplus of these supplies, as had been the case in previous disasters. Thus, the project participants set about conducting a detailed assessment to look at how to improve disaster victims’ chances of surviving their stay at evacuation centers.
The situation that actually unfolded took everyone by surprise, however, because it turned out that many centers did not receive the basic relief supplies they needed. Tamura explains more about the situation at the time:
“In the case of most disasters in Japan, supplies arrive within a week or so. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake, gas was in short supply, and the situation was complicated by the nuclear power plant accident, which led to a lack of even basic relief supplies.
“When we arrived at an evacuation center bearing nothing but questions about how the evacuees were doing, some of them took us to task for arriving empty-handed. This made the first few weeks of conducting the survey quite an ordeal.”
Model Evacuation Center
Tsuna-Pro pressed on, despite those initial challenges, making slow but steady progress toward identifying evacuee needs. Rather than asking evacuees whether there was anything in particular they needed, project volunteers asked them specific questions, like: whether they had room partitions; how many toilets their center had; how often the sludge was removed; and whether shoes were allowed or had to be removed. This method of questioning was unusual, but it allowed the volunteers to glean much more information than would have otherwise been possible.
“Many people think the key to identifying the needs of evacuees is hearing what they have to say, but a question like: ‘What do you need?’ won’t reveal their true needs,” Tamura points out. “When asked that sort of question, many will answer that they are just grateful to be alive and don’t have any pressing needs.
“We took the model evacuation center as our starting point for evaluations and asked evacuees specific questions about their circumstances. In some cases, we gave them a multiple-choice question with three options, asking them to select their preference. The questions were intended to give them a valuable chance to reflect on their own situation and think about what they needed. It is important, in such situations, to anticipate the needs of evacuees and allow them to voice their opinions.”
Tsuna-Pro presented the results of the surveys it conducted at evacuation centers to its head office and analyzed the results. By the end of June 2011, project members had visited 443 evacuation centers and identified 505 separate needs. Making use of cloud computing systems, it posted the findings to corporate web sites, updated the information weekly to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of evacuees, and tried to convey these needs to as wide a segment of the public as possible. The efforts paid off with success stories that included the delivery of wheelchairs within a month of the disaster to evacuees who had lost their wheelchairs to the tsunami, and the delivery of supplies such as dictionaries and gastric feeding tubes. In these ways, Tsuna-Pro members helped to look after the needs of some of the evacuees.
Analyzing and Using the Data
“Some say the relief assistance after the Great East Japan Earthquake was not as good as that provided after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, but there’s no point in comparing what happened in 2011 with what happened in 1995, given the demographic and economic differences between those years,” Tamura notes. “For instance, today the number of 18-year-old men and women is two-thirds that of 1995. There simply aren’t as many young people able to help out now. Also, back in 1995, local governments had money to spare, whereas today there is a budget crunch. The model of setting up a fund for reconstruction is no longer viable because interest from it would not be adequate to cover expenditures, given today’s low interest rates. My own view is that we need to alter our perceptions with regard to disaster response and reconstruction.
“The first thing we must do is restore local government functions and make reconstruction a priority. Once this is done, we should provide support for the formulation and implementation of a plan for reconstruction that has the acceptance of the people living in the disaster areas.
“Tsuna-Pro will continue to analyze the invaluable information gathered after the 2011 disaster, and make adjustments to the systems for assessing evacuation centers and responding to the needs of small groups. We plan to formulate disaster response measures so that we are well prepared for the next earthquake.”