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Notes from the debris field: “recovery” from Kobe, through New Orleans, to Tohoku

Tyson Vaughan
Cornell University

If you go to the tsunami-wrecked coastline of northeastern Japan a year after the disaster, you will see a rugged coastline of forest-clad, rocky mountains girding narrow valleys — scenery so spectacularly beautiful that you wonder why it took a catastrophe to bring it to your attention. You will see heart-breaking and frankly awesome devastation in the valleys, juxtaposed with untouched buildings and infrastructure at higher elevations. You will still see mountains of rubble, trashed cars and boats, gutted buildings, and broad fields of rectangular building foundations where once there were whole neighborhoods. You will see construction workers and heavy equipment and the uniform, cross-braced, prefabricated blocks of temporary houses, temporary shops, and temporary offices. You will meet kind and hard-working locals who will laugh and joke with you, and then tell you their personal stories of tragedy. With a shrug, the heroic determination to rebuild and move forward transforms into the acknowledgment that the quotidian tasks of carrying on are just the way things are now.

This is the environment in which the relentless, uncertain work of cleanup, reconstruction, and “recovery” is proceeding. This is “the geography of crisis and opportunity” (Edgington, 2010). Indeed, it is a virtual truism that catastrophes provide unique opportunities for both scholars and actors to apprehend, and potentially reform, otherwise “black-boxed” components of societies. Built environments, sociotechnical systems, political institutions, and cultural norms, practices and imaginaries all become potentially open to scrutiny and intervention in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Especially in disaster-struck urban areas of wealthy nations, the combination of forcefully opened spaces and a temporary torrent of reconstruction funding tends to lead government officials, developers and city planners to seize upon the post-disaster landscape as a “clean slate” upon which to draw up plans for a newer, more “prosperous,” and “safer” town (Edgington, 2010; Johnson & Olshansky, 2010). Such authorities and elites are likely to overlook persistent sociotechnical obduracy: surviving residents and structures, rubble and detritus, social institutions and networks, and the recovery plan that already exists in the minds of survivors — the city as it existed before (Hommels, 2005; Haas et al, 1977). Moreover, if authorities push their own plans too hard, too fast, they risk forsaking what is arguably the greatest opportunity in the aftermath of a disaster: the chance for “lay” citizens to participate in a process of “technical” decision-making that may profoundly shape the sociotechnical configurations of their communities for generations to come — and through that very participation, to model a more actively engaged form of democratic citizenship.

Denying citizens this opportunity can be politically costly. The former mayor of Kobe, Japan, learned this lesson the hard way when that city’s initial recovery plan was released just two months after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake left over 6400 dead and tens of thousands homeless in 1995. The plan involved substantial use of eminent domain and land readjustment, especially in many of the hardest-hit areas, putatively to enhance safety and resilience against future seismic events. As Edgington recounts (p. 107-120), after the plan’s unveiling an angry crowd besieged City Hall for five hours, haranguing officials for taking advantage of them, as one resident said later, “like a thief at the scene of a fire” (kajiba dorobo). The residents saw the plan as a cynical power play by the city to push through its rapacious schemes while the voices of dissent had been silenced by the tragedy. By the end of that same day, Kobe’s mayor made an about-face and announced plans for massive public participation in recovery planning, through the creation and support of dozens of neighborhood-based machi-zukuri (“community development”) organizations across the city.

An eerily similar scene was repeated 10 years later, in post-Katrina New Orleans, when angry residents accused a mayor-backed team of planners and developers of “trying to scheme to get our land” (Russell & Donze, 2006). The mayor dropped his support, and none of the subsequent recovery planning endeavors in New Orleans was able to garner significant political legitimacy without prominently featuring widespread public participation as central to its process (Horne & Nee, 2006; Johnson & Olshansky, 2010).

In Tohoku, the tsunami-stricken towns stretch for several hundred kilometers along the coast of three prefectures. There is no singular vision for the recovery of the region. Most of the municipalities released initial, local recovery plans by November of last year (well behind the pace of Kobe, but comparable to New Orleans), with widely varying forms and levels of public input. For example, the town of Minami-Sanriku, with the support of nearby Miyagi University, had used surveys, resident committees, and local town planning meetings to elicit and analyze the opinions of residents (Kawawaki, 2011). In other towns, however, initial plans have met considerable public resistance. At least one mayor has already been pushed out of office due to opposition over recovery plans (Hawthorne, 2012).

Despite the number and diversity of the towns and villages affected, a common theme connects the controversies over recovery planning across the region — a theme which was equally prominent in Kobe and New Orleans. In brief, it is the dilemma of whether to reconfigure a built environment that is “technically safer,” or whether to reconstruct a community in which pre-existing social networks and ways of living are maintained as they were before the disaster. All too often, these two goals appear to be incompatible to some degree. In Kobe, densely packed neighborhoods of narrow alleys and single-family homes had collapsed and rapidly burned in the earthquake, and city planners wanted to build large, seismically resistant condominium buildings around broad avenues and parks more amenable to evacuation and first-responders. In New Orleans, there was talk of relocating residents into dense clusters in order to open more green space, reducing the urban footprint and supposedly providing for better drainage and flood control. In Tohoku, the questions include whether to move residents and/or businesses away from the sea and whether to rebuild tsunami defenses even bigger than before.

Such solutions are eminently understandable. Who could fault a planner or an administration for trying to enhance the safety of the local community? Of course, surviving residents also want to be safer. But when presented with the prospect of a possibly somewhat safer existence in which their social networks or accustomed way of life  may be sustained only with great effort and inconvenience, they think twice. Residents of Kobe’s Nagata ward speak of the reconstruction as if it dealt greater damage to their close-knit sense of community than had the earthquake itself. Ultimately, despite the structural “improvements,” these changes may arguably leave the community more rather than less vulnerable to future disasters. Though perhaps more physically resilient in the face of another earthquake, the community may be less socially resilient, with residents less knowledgeable about each other and less able to depend upon one another in times of need.

At a recent machi-zukuri recovery planning meeting in Kesennuma, one resident summed up the issue when he said, “When we say the word seikatsu (‘livelihood’), what that really means is umi (‘the sea’).” He explained that the sea is the center of the community and the lives of the people. Fishing and other port-related activities are the foundation of the local economy and culture. Plans to enhance safety by moving away from the water or building ever more gargantuan sea walls merely separate the community from the source of its identity, and yet cannot, in fact, guarantee residents’ safety.

NHK Television recently broadcast a story about a business owner who reopened his business in Minami-Sanriku on the same location it had been before the tsunami washed it away. When asked why he would rebuild on the same vulnerable plot of land, he said, “I was born and raised right here. There is no other place. There is no other place.” For him, it was literally the only viable choice he could imagine. This is the kind of example that is leading to a debate in the region about the proper roles and responsibilities of a democratic government when citizens freely choose to put themselves in hazard’s way.

This debate, especially inasmuch as it focuses upon “livelihood” versus “safety,” is not merely one between “citizens” on the one hand and “authorities” on the other. Amongst residents themselves, it is controversial. For obvious reasons, their feelings are complex. It is complicated further by their awareness of broader social and economic conditions: the local population is even older and aging more rapidly than Japan as a whole, and its local industries have been in decline for some time. Small coastal villages dependent upon fishing do not have the resources or diverse economies of Kobe or New Orleans to fall back upon. There are doubts as to whether certain recovery endeavors would be worth the investment in effort and capital.

The issue is representative of a deeper and more persistent dilemma for disaster recovery planning in general. Architects, urban planners and city officials fundamentally work with physical artifacts and buildings, hard infrastructure, funding with expiration dates, and quantitative benchmarks of narrowly defined technical objectives — sea wall height, population density, tax base expansion, traffic throughput — that are often achieved through relatively short-term, capital-intensive engineering projects. These are the objects within their frames of reference and direct spheres of influence. Put another way, they tend to see a community as “a collection of architectonic structures and relationships optimized for capital reproduction” (Barrios, 2011). Thus, to varying degrees, these authorities and technical experts tend to ignore less tangible or measurable things such as social ties among people, emotional bonds to places, or the rhythms of a community’s daily life.

So far, recovery planning in Tohoku both reinforces and complicates this picture. At least at some machi-zukuri recovery planning meetings run by experienced consultants from Kobe, the experts have displayed exquisite sensitivity to residents’ concerns, values, and different ways of knowing. Furthermore, they have gone out of their way to solicit input from each and every resident. It remains to be seen whether this will eventually translate into creative solutions that go beyond the usual disputes over the sizes of parks or the widths of roads. Because of the assumed objectives (e.g., reconstructed buildings and infrastructure), assumed ultimate audience (government reconstruction offices), and the nature of the “boundary objects” through which residents and experts exchange knowledge (e.g., surveys, maps), the terms of discussion seem destined to be defined by the discourses of institutionalized planning expertise. For example, the maps used in these discussions readily display “architectonic structures and relationships,” while social structures and relationships remain largely unrepresented. Thus, once planning proceeds beyond open discussion of broad goals and desires to a more focused discussion of actionable solutions, the results may well resemble what occurred in Kobe and New Orleans, for better or for worse.

For now, Tohoku’s “recovery” is proceeding slowly. Japan’s fiscal year turns over in April, and local and regional governments are scrambling to complete their budgets for 2012-2013. After April, the pace is likely to accelerate, and it will be a critical year for seizing the opportunity to meaningfully engage citizens in recovery planning and other processes of sociotechnical change, amidst the dangerous and spectacular natural scenery.

Tyson Vaughan is a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, a co-founder and editor of Teach 3.11, and a research assistant at the International Recovery Platform in Kobe, Japan. His dissertation examines community-based public participation in recovery planning in Kobe, Tohoku, and his native New Orleans.



Barrios, Roberto.  2011.  “Post-Katrina Neighbourhood Recovery Planning,” in Dowty, Rachel A., and Barbara L. Allen, eds., Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and Recovery. EarthScan: 97-114.

Edgington, David W. 2010. Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

Haas, J. Eugene, Robert W. Kates, and Martyn J. Bowden. 1977. Reconstruction Following Disaster. The MIT Press..

Hawthorne, Christopher. 2012. “Without a Blueprint.” Los Angeles Times, March 8.

Hommels, Anique. 2005. Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Sociotechnical Change. The MIT Press.

Horne, J., and B. Nee. 2006. “An overview of post-Katrina planning in New Orleans.” Berkeley: Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Johnson, Laurie A., and Robert B. Olshansky. 2010. Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans. American Planning Association (Planners Press).

Kawawaki, Yasuo. 2011. “Recovery Planning Process and Related Case Studies of the Great East Japan Earthquake.” Kobe, Japan: International Recovery Platform.

Olshansky, Robert B. 2006. “Planning After Hurricane Katrina.” Journal of the American Planning Association 72:147.

Russell, Gordon and Frank Donze.  2006.  “Rebuilding Proposal Gets Mixed Reaction,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 12.

  1. Craig D. Nelson permalink

    Framing the issue of social connections as an issue of safety is very interesting, and I think quite astute. Misters Abe and Cisterna’s papers also raise the issue of safety following a crisis. All three of you raise the connection between safety and technology, but there seem to be other interesting connections between these papers. While Mr. Abe’s discussion of social networks bring up the possibility of creating new connections to create a sense of safety, Mr. Vaughn focuses on the importance of maintaining existing networks to foster a feeling of safety. All three discuss the use of technology to foster a sense of safety, while Mr. Cisterna and Mr. Vaughn discuss the limits of the safety technology can provide. Do any of you see further connections between your papers or care to expand on any of the ones mentioned above?

    • Let me just add another brief comment on the connection between my work and that of Nicolas. There is this persistent question of the indeterminacy of safety that features prominently in his work. Unlike with food safety, it is not really front and center in recovery planning; however, it is certainly there. For example, if it is decided to build a massive seawall for protection against another tsunami, then the question becomes: how big is big enough?

      Of course, one difference is that the cost of building bigger seawalls goes up exponentially with the size and strength of the wall, whereas when choosing which food to buy, it costs consumers essentially nothing to choose the safer option (i.e., food from a western prefecture or with the lowest tested radiation). So this kind of cost-benefit analysis is perhaps more obvious in recovery planning and reconstruction.

      Furthermore, in discussions at machi-zukuri meetings I have attended, residents expressed concern that seawalls which obscured the water would also mean they would be less able to see a tsunami coming, potentially making them less safe — or at least more dependent upon institutionalized and technological warning systems.

      And finally, there is always the awareness that unforeseen disasters of other kinds could occur, and that total safety is of course impossible.

  2. Craig, I certainly agree with you that there are a number of connections between my paper and those of Nicolas and Yasuhito. Indeed, like Nicolas, I am also concerned with the social construction of “safety” or “resilience” or something along those lines, particularly in the context of recovery planning, in which there are “lay” residents working closely with officials and experts of various stripes. I haven’t seen any cases where residents are explicitly arguing that “safety” is a holistic concept incorporating “komyuniti-” as well as stronger buildings and better disaster mitigation training; however, as an analyst I think I can argue that this interpretation is a fruitful and in some sense truthful account of an implicit dispute between (generally) residents and experts.

    There are a number of overlapping categories that are used by both scholars and actors, and I suspect that a systematic consideration of their usages and slippages in various contexts would possibly be instructive. These include safety, resilience, and capacity, which are often pitted against the categories of risk and vulnerability.

    On the point of new versus existing social networks…. One thing that happened in Kobe and is undoubtedly happening now in Tohoku is that the partial atomization and somewhat haphazard rearrangement of residents who previously lived in coherent communities into new neighborhoods of temporary housing unsurprisingly creates new communities and new social relationships among those who find themselves living together under such extraordinary conditions. Indeed, some residents of these temporary housing neighborhoods, despite complaining of cramped quarters or poorly insulated rooms, say they don’t want to move. At least in Kobe’s case, these concerns were generally ignored as many of these residents were moved from temporary into public housing. The point is that webs of social relationships just don’t register as things within the purview of planners or officials to do much about, even when many of them probably understand the issue on some level.

    • Chigusa Kita permalink

      I am impressed by Tyson’s approach, “action research in STS”, to deal with this issue. It may take some time to get the point of academic analysis, but the issues are shifting and revealing new dimensions and including those in-depth-considerations to build frameworks for research is essential.

  3. This piece pulls together a comparison I have been waiting for: New Orleans and Tohoku. The key question, analytically, is to really explore what you describe as “the dilemma of whether to reconfigure a built environment that is “technically safer,” or whether to reconstruct a community in which pre-existing social networks and ways of living are maintained as they were before the disaster.”

    The professions associated with urban planning these days have fully internalized the concepts of “community planning,” and yet, as you aptly describe there seem to be multiple parallel tracks of recovery planning underway: citizens, workers, architects, planners, investors, private firms, government bureaucrats are all planning the physical recovery of Tohoku, just as they did in New Orleans. Interesting thing about New Orleans is that ultimately the city emerged neither “technically safer,” nor with its social networks intact. Is this possible in Tohoku as well? Here, perhaps the comparison breaks down.

    I have been especially interested in tracing the work of victim’s/family groups post-disaster, particularly when they explicitly engage planning and reconstruction issues. See the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and if you are interested. These are cases where the moral authority of the victim/family DEMANDS a seat at the table for the non-expert, sometimes (as with Skyscraper Safety) dramatic results, like a $16 million dollar study at NIST that never would have happened otherwise.

    Again, great essay Tyson.

    Scott Gabriel Knowles

  4. Scott, thanks for that thoughtful and encouraging response. I’m particularly intrigued by your insight about the moral authority of victims and their families. You are undoubtedly correct, and that is something to which I need to pay more attention in the participatory planning realm.

    This reminds me of an incident at one of the machi-zukuri meetings I attended recently at one of the temporary housing complexes in Kesennuma. Although I had been welcomed there, later when I mentioned that my hometown is New Orleans, the residents instantly seemed to warm up to me more than before. Even though I was actually living in Japan at the time of Katrina, that personal connection to a disaster area created an instant “kizuna” (bond).

    I do think that there could be more parallels between New Orleans and Tohoku, as recovery in both cities continues to move forward. But you are correct that, at least so far, New Orleans seems to have lost both a measure of “technical safety” and social cohesion. It is still very early in Tohoku’s case, and since it is such a large area with so many municipalities, it seems likely that we’ll see a variety of outcomes depending on the locality and the way they go about their recovery planning.

  5. Thanks for this very thoughtful and sensitive post. It provides us with an important reminder that disasters operate at very different scales, and demonstrates how locally-grounded, ethnographic analyses can reveal important dimensions of disaster that risk being erased in the larger policy dialogue. Both you and Lisa also kindly prod us not to equate 3.11 with Fukushima or nuclear issues alone. I plead guilty to the problematic use of the term “Fukushima” (inherited, perhaps from the 4S sessions in Cleveland). Despite my efforts to talk about the “broader context” of the NE Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, this doesn’t do justice to the suffering that occurred, and continues to occur in Japan. I suppose this isn’t just about number (deaths and injuries) alone. There are clearly very different kinds of fears and suffering (fear of radiation effects vs. death, physical injury and dislocation; the rural vs. urban dimensions of the disaster), that we need to pay attention to as distinct aspects of the disaster… even as we look for the interconnections, or the failure to make necessary connections that inform or distort the policy dialogue.

    I was just in Vermont this past weekend, and saw, first hand, some of the damage that occurred as a result of the widespread flooding in Vermont that accompanied Hurricane Irene. Though perhaps ‘lesser’ in terms of its total damage, the flooding in Vermont (and in our area of upstate New York) also placed in clear relief once again the socio-economic geography of disaster (much in the way that New Orleans did as well). The Vermont case also introduces the rural dimensions of disaster that made me think of the parallels with the Tohoku coastal region. (It was the economically depressed “hill town” communities, and especially the low income residential properties built along the “100-year” flood zones that suffered most from the weather-related inundation.) While the fishing villages, towns, and cities along the NE coast of Japan were not “rural” by US standards, there is nevertheless a clear contrast between the coastal region and urban Tokyo that must be playing out in the policy dialogue there.

    I also like your post for pointing to some very different epistemic systems and how they come into contact with one another in political arenas such as a local (municipal) planning board. While many people (including me) have found the “citizen science” aspects of the disaster (e.g. DIY radiation monitoring) to be quite interesting, your article reminded me that we need to look beyond the extraordinary to the “extra” ordinary discourses as Gabrielle put it in considering what all is important in understanding a disaster. Surely, the local and regional planning board discussions are instances of ordinary conversations in which different knowledge systems interact (or fail to interact, except via conflicts), and where recognized forms of expertise become embedded into the policy formulation process in the way that you so nicely describe here. In these instances, I suppose what is going on is that the “value” of social bonds and community networks, which I imagine can be analyzed in very traditional anthropological ways, and as superimposed onto patterns of rural poverty, is treated as something that is “not” knowledge whereas the views of planning experts are treated as (quantifiable) knowledge / knowledge that can be rendered into plans, maps and other forms of policy documents and representation.

    In a very different kind of example, my wife, Rachel, is involved with a group here called the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, which is trying to get the dozen or so municipalities in this region to (each) come up with a (local/) comprehensive plan for preserving the largely reforested land of the Rensselaer Plateau. One of the things they have been attempting to do is to organize “social valuation” workshops that allow less tangible resources to be placed on a map, in documenting local attitudes towards (what outside experts call) “open space.” Absent such an articulation process, what they’re finding is that the underlying conservative attitudes about land owner rights wind up trumping any other political discourse surrounding shared values about the land. I will be very interested in hearing more about what innovative processes emerge in the various “machi-zukuri” (town planning, or literally “town building”) sessions that allow different values to likewise be represented in the planning discourses in the affected communities in Japan’s Tohoku coastal region.

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

  6. Yasuhito Abe permalink

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful essay. It is really exciting for me to find some connections between New Orleans experiences and Tohoku’s. Many people, including me, tend to locate the 311 experiences in a national historical context, but your essay reminded me that we can capture the experiences beyond the context of Japan’s national history. I am wondering if you could talk a bit more about what you think about evacuees that left their local communities due to the risks of unknown exposure to nuclear radiation in your research.

    Again, thank you very much for sharing this article. It is absolutely fascinating.

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