After the Earthquake

As Japan struggles to respond to the devastation, it has experience on its side, says disaster relief expert Peter Walker

Peter Walker

The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier this month is presenting overwhelming challenges for relief agencies. But disasters in developed, industrialized countries are very different from those that strike poor, underdeveloped nations, says Peter Walker, the director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts. That doesn’t make the difficulties less daunting, but it does mean a different approach is required to deal with them.

Walker, who is also the Irwin H. Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security at the Friedman School, has been involved in disaster response since 1979. In 1990 he joined the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, serving as its director of disaster policy for 10 years, before moving to Bangkok as head of the federation’s regional programs for Southeast Asia. He spoke with Tufts Now about the situation in Japan.

Tufts Now: How big is the catastrophe in Japan compared with recent disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti or the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean?

Peter Walker: In absolute terms it’s complex and terrible, and one disaster has triggered another. But you can also look at it in relative terms: how big is it compared to the country’s ability to cope with it? What percentage of the country’s gross domestic product is being lost to this disaster? With Japan, you’re talking a single-digit percentage, while in Haiti, it was 100 percent gross domestic product loss, depending on how you count it.

You can also look at lives lost. At the moment we’re not sure yet, but in Japan we’re talking about 10,000 or 20,000 people. In Haiti, between 200,000 and 300,000 people died, and 230,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami.

Aside from scale, how else do the series of events in Japan differ from other disasters?

What makes this crisis different is that it’s in a developed part of the world. For the region in Japan where it took place, this has been devastating, and it’s affected the entire country—from fuel prices and supply lines to the secondary disaster of the nuclear power plant, and we’re still not out of the woods on that. But in a developed country, and one that is frequently hit by disasters, there is a built-in response system. Undeveloped countries don’t have in place a fully integrated national response system, or it’s not resourced because they don’t have the money for what-ifs. Instead, they are dealing with poverty day-to-day. Japan’s ability to self-recover after this crisis is way ahead of Haiti’s ability or Indonesia’s ability.

What are the similarities in disasters?

What’s the same is the human side. People look after their families first and are incredibly resilient. It always stuns me how stoic people are after a crisis. For the most part there isn’t panic; there aren’t all those scenes of people looting—that’s a small minority. Most people basically rally around and help each other, whether they’re in Haiti, New Orleans or Japan. People are the same the world over.

Is the understandable focus on the problems with the nuclear reactors overshadowing the suffering of the average person?

News focuses on what is newsworthy, and radiation is almost like a primordial fear. But this is a disaster that hasn’t yet happened. The tsunami and the destruction of homes and livelihoods: that has happened, and that is huge.

How are humanitarian organizations helping?

The best thing aid agencies can do is to provide money for the relief agencies in Japan. You don’t have to mount externally driven relief operations. Japan actually has a lot of resources, and most of the major aid agencies are being very careful about how they work there. Japan has a strong government and legal system. You need to work within it; it’s not a case of a fragile or failed state where there is no infrastructure and you’re not only providing relief but also the infrastructure that a government would provide.

We don’t need to send aid workers; Japanese workers will volunteer. What is needed is the money to fund that initial relief and then to help people survive for the next months.

What’s the best way for Americans to help?

The Japanese Red Cross is by far that country’s biggest and most successful agency. All the Red Cross agencies are federated so you can go to the American Red Cross and make a donation that will go to the Japanese Red Cross. The American Red Cross has made an initial contribution of $10 million.

What will the aid efforts mean for the Japanese economy?

The work of rebuilding will help the economy in that region. You don’t ship workers in; you hire local people from that region, and they spend money there. It will take years, of course, and it will never be the same as it was before. They may change building regulations and the size of plots and how close to the coast buildings can be located. They will probably be thinking about what they can do to make the tsunami warning system more efficient.

In every crisis you learn lessons: how we can rebuild better? After a major crisis you have an opportunity to plan a community that doesn’t have the built-in quirks you wish you hadn’t inherited. It’s a tragic way to get that, but it allows you to do it.

How long will it take?

When there was a big earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, the government said everyone would be housed within a year. Three or four years later, some people were still in temporary locations—the mentally ill, the elderly who had lost their extended family. So there are people who fall at the bottom in disasters, and recovery for them is long.

What do you foresee for the rebuilding process?

In the immediate future, there is a huge amount of cleaning up to do—the debris, whatever chemicals that were in the houses, the gas stations that are now smeared across the landscape. There are bodies of people and animals, and there is salt water everywhere. This was previously prime agricultural land. All the debris has to be removed, and the land has to be cleared. It will take years to get the land back to the point where you can build again and farm.

Where will people live during the clean-up?

Most people want to go back to their homes as quickly as they can; people are the same the world over. What we’ve learned from previous crises is that temporary housing becomes permanent housing unless you’ve got something better for people to go to. Think about the trailer parks we’ve got in New Orleans; that’s all temporary stuff, yet there are still people living in them due to Hurricane Katrina.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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