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Does Japan Need a FEMA?

by | March 31st, 2011 | 02:50 pm

On Sunday the Tokyo Electric Power Company announced that they had found puddles at the damaged Fukushima nuclear facility’s No. 2 reactor containing extraordinarily high levels of radioactivity—10 million times higher than would be found in water in a normally functioning nuclear reactor.  Thirty minutes later they retracted the statement.

Thankfully the markets were closed and beyond the temporary scare, no lasting damage was done.  But more serious problems have plagued the recovery effort and the Japanese political system is beginning to confront the possibility that emergency management reforms introduced after the 1995 Kobe earthquake have been inadequate.  

Although Kobe was ultimately rebuilt in stellar fashion, the response of the Japanese government in the period immediately following the quake was widely regarded as inadequate. As recounted by Leo Bosner, a longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official with experience in Japan, the local prefectural government did not request assistance from the military for more than four hours after the quake. Without specific information, the defense forces responded with inadequate troops. Offers of international assistance were declined. The national disaster management bureau had only 36 employees and was unable to coordinate the response, leaving individual agencies to go their own way.

At times, officials followed the playbook a little too closely: I remember the manager of an American telecommunications firm’s Japan operation rushing to Kobe to donate mobile telephony equipment and being told by a municipal government official that the equipment could not be used since it was not properly labeled as a property of the Kobe government. The expat manager and an embassy official borrowed a rubber stamp and marked the equipment themselves.  The yakuza, or local gangsters, were reputed to have responded to the emergency more decisively than the government did.  

In the aftermath of the Kobe disaster the government undertook a series of reforms to strengthen disaster preparedness and emergency response. A truly impressive set of sensors were installed to detect earthquakes and tsunamis. As part of a governmental reorganization, the position of Minister of State for Disaster Management was created, and the Disaster Management Bureau was placed in the cabinet office and expanded to 50 people.  (As a point of comparison, FEMA has 3,700 full-time employees and nearly 4,000 standby disaster assistance employees.) However, unlike FEMA, the minister and the bureau (itself staffed with officials seconded from other ministries) serve only advisory and coordinating functions; they cannot assign tasks to other agencies such as the self-defense forces during a declared emergency.  This bureaucratic vacuum and lack of accountable professional disaster management capacity has surely contributed to some of the missteps observed over the past two weeks.

It’s too late to repair this system for case at hand, but one hopes that when the situation has stabilized, the political system will take another, deeper look at reforming Japan’s disaster management institutions. The technology appears to be world class—it is the human component that needs an upgrade.

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