By Astrid Zweynert
LONDON (AlertNet) – Japan’s disaster preparedness is often cited as among the best in the world, and two years ago when its meteorological agency detected the first signs of tremors that resulted in the nation’s most powerful earthquake, its early warning system swung into action immediately.
Automated quake alerts interrupted programming on national television and radio; alerts flashed across mobile phones; schools and local disaster prevention offices were warned electronically seconds before the 9.0 magnitude quake struck. Within three minutes of the temblor, the first of three official tsunami warnings was issued through the same media and governmental channels.
This system prevented many casualties in the triple disaster that unfolded as 10-metre-high tsunami waves hit northeastern Japan and the earthquake damaged a nuclear plant, pushing Japan to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.
However, as the tsunami hammered the coastal regions of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima - predominantly fishing and rural areas with an older-than-average population - this high-tech response had its limitations, while “hyper-local” community media played a pivotal role in providing life-saving information, according to a report published Wednesday by media development organisation Internews Europe.
“Early warning systems and disaster preparedness save lives, but no information is fail-safe in the worst-case complex disaster scenarios,” wrote Lois Appleby, author of “Connecting the Last Mile: The Role of communications in the Great East Japan Earthquake.”
“All media channels are important - from high-tech to the lowest tech. Local community-led media, in particular radio, contributes more effectively to the information needs of communities in disaster zones than national broadcast media, and have an important role to play in early warning and disaster management systems.”
HYPER-LOCAL IS EFFECTIVE
The disaster highlighted the extreme vulnerability of older people, who accounted for 65.8 percent of total deaths. Due to the quake’s magnitude and the short period of time before the tsunami hit, older people had physical and psychological difficulties with evacuation, the report said.
Local community-supported media disseminated reliable information and became lifesavers, especially for people outside evacuation centres where some survived without aid for almost a month and for those without access to digital media.
One such community-led effort was H@!FM radio station in Tome, Miyagi. A major earthquake had been expected for years, and founder director Keiichi Saito invested building an earthquake-resistant radio station with solid foundations for the antenna, spare equipment and a generator.
The earthquake wiped out electricity and the Internet in the city for more than a month, but from day one of the quake, H@!FM broadcast vital information about food, water and other lifeline supplies. Local people also joined broadcasts to share vital information.
Almost two years later, the station, run by a team of seven, still broadcasts recovery and reconstruction information for 24 hours every day and also caters to more than 3,000 residents from Minami-Sanriku who still live in temporary shelters.
“In a disaster the most effective information channels are lots of small dedicated radio stations with strong community links,” said Saito. “Mass media does not cover the local information needed.”
Another local radio broadcaster, Radio Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture, also broadcast life-saving information with petrol-powered generators collected from local people in Ishinomaki City, which became submerged under almost a metre of water after the tsunami.
The presenters took turns reading 5,000 to 6,000 names each day, from lists of dead and missing persons, saving people the effort of going to each evacuation centre to search for loved ones.
OLD MEDIA IN ACTION
A handwritten newspaper in the Ishinomaki area became crucial, and at times, the only way to communicate with the disaster-affected population.
After Hibi Shimbun newspaper’s offices were flooded, the paper’s six reporters immediately began to gather information from city hall, moving around on foot.
The day after the quake, reporters handwrote headlines on a giant piece of paper, which then was duplicated six times by hand and taped to walls in five evacuation centres and on a shop door.
For six days, these newspapers were written by hand daily, answering survivors’ most urgent questions about power, water and food supplies. They also dispelled rumours with an “Act on the Facts” feature. When 700 newspapers were printed eventually and distributed around the city, they became an instant hit.
“When we went to the evacuation centres with the newspapers, big crowds gathered,” Hiroyuki Takeuchi, editor of Hibi Shimbun, recalled in the report. “People were so hungry for information, we could barely stick the paper on the wall.”
MORE EDUCATION NEEDED
The report concluded that no matter how sophisticated early warning systems are, public education on the limitations of disaster management technology and continued work on risk awareness and preparedness are needed.
While Internet and social media platforms have a major contribution to make to disaster response and recovery, they are dependent on power and telecommunications infrastructure and do not currently reach key vulnerable groups, the report said.
Moreover, as new humanitarian information from non-traditional humanitarian responders such as the private sector and volunteer technical communities increase, these groups and their tools should be more integrated within formal disaster management, it said.