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Posted June 1, 2012

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Congress 2012

Local knowledge saved lives in 2011 Japan quake

Canada can learn from the Japanese response, says UBC professor

Waterloo - Local knowledge and institutionalized responses helped save lives during and after last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, says a University of British Columbia human geography professor.

David Edgington says Canada, as it ponders its own disaster response mechanisms, can learn from the Japanese experience.

Edgington has spent much of his career studying Japan and had recently finished a book about how the city of Kobe rebuilt after a 1995 earthquake there.

So it seemed natural for him to investigate responses to the 2011 quake, which had a magnitude of 9.0 and was one of the most powerful quakes ever recorded.

He found there were several things that saved lives, and is presenting his findings at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

One liver-saver is what he calls local knowledge.

The coastal city of Soma was one of the many places struck by the tsunami.

He says residents of one of the older neighbourhoods knew, from past experience, that when a tsunami strikes, they should “head for the temple.” The neighbourhood temple is on high ground, and Edgington says a lot of lives were saved because residents rushed to that spot.

But in a new suburb of the same city, there was no local memory of what to do when a tsunami strikes. The residents of that suburb fared poorly.

Another thing that saved lives is the tremendous investment the Japanese government has made in preparedness.

Edgington says that includes everything from strict building codes to massive investments in such things as sea walls and public education.

He says Canada could easily copy those ideas – but adds they would cost money.

There was one more lesson from Japan, says Edgington, and it’s a lesson in what didn’t work.

In Japan, as in Canada, it’s up to individual communities to organize initial response to a major disaster. It’s up to the local fire brigade, for example, to fight local fires.

Edgington says that generally makes sense, because disasters are above all local.

But the 2011 earthquake and tsunami was such a large catastrophe that in many cases it overwhelmed local ability to respond.

And that, he says, has got Japanese mayors talking about changing the response protocols for large disasters to provide for a more coordinated response.

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