Japan: Disaster, disability and a community’s revival

10 Mar 2014

Fukushima, Japan: Children at a Japanese Red Cross-run temporary indoor playground. Three years on from the massive earthquake and tsunamis that smashed Japan's east coast, communities are rebuilding, and authorities are learning lessons from the disaster. Credit: Japanese Red Cross
Three years on from the Great East Japan Earthquake, authorities are developing new disaster plans that address the unique needs of people with disabilities.

“I thought this was the end of the world,” says Yusuke Ishimori, a young survivor of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated communities along Japan’s east coast. Yusuke is from Ishinomaki, one of the cities hardest hit by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the massive waves that followed.

Yusuke has cerebral palsy, a condition that has confined him to a wheelchair for much of his young life. He recalls the piercing sound of the tsunami alert that rang just minutes before the water rushed into his home. He remembers the feeling of helplessness, and how his mother and grandmother helped him up the stairs to safety.

“The whole neighbourhood became like a dark, black lake and everything disappeared in it,” he says. His electric wheelchair was ruined in the surging water.

Twice as likely to be killed or injured

Yusuke still considers himself lucky to have survived. According to the Japan Disability Forum, people with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities were twice as likely to be killed or injured in the disaster.

There were many reasons for this. Early warnings were not designed to meet the needs of people with physical disabilities: people with hearing issues could not hear the alarms, and there was no system in place to ensure that all those who needed help to flee their homes would receive it.

The disaster and its aftermath were equally challenging for those with intellectual and mental disabilities. In the weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, Ishinomaki’s social and community health workers found many people with mental and intellectual disabilities living on the upper floors of their damaged houses, or even crammed into small spaces, such as cars.

Life in evacuation centres—and later in the prefabricated collective houses that were constructed months after the disaster—was unbearable for many of these people and for their family members and caregivers. The crowded and tense environments in the centres were too stressful, and other evacuees often did not understand their specific, and often invisible, needs.

“Some of the evacuees got annoyed or complained about them speaking loudly,” explained one of the town’s welfare workers. “Their caregivers were afraid of them causing trouble too, so a lot of them [people with disabilities and their carers] voluntarily left the centres.”

“It was impossible for me to stay”

The Japanese Self-Defense Force rescued Yusuke and his family the morning after the tsunami and relocated them to the evacuation centre in the City Hall of the neighbouring city of Higashi-Matsushima. Within two days, Yusuke had left the centre and moved to his uncle’s place.

Without his wheelchair, Yusuke could not move by himself. But even if he had the wheelchair, he could not have navigated the stairs or used common facilities, such as bathrooms, without difficulty.

“It was impossible for me to continue to stay at the City Hall,” he said. Yusuke had to wait for two months before he could return home. Despite the difficulties he faced, moving to a Government-constructed temporary house was not an option for him. “They were simply not designed for wheelchair users,” he said.

Learning lessons

“Ishinomaki City has done its best to learn from the experiences of people like Yusuke,” said Masaki Watabe, the Head of OCHA’s Japan office. “It has revised its disaster management plan to ensure that the different and specific needs of people with disabilities are better addressed.”

Some key measures are already being implemented. People with disabilities are being encouraged to register their details on a database that aid groups will use during disasters. Standby agreements have been made with local welfare facilities to use them as specialized evacuation centres, and tailor-made evacuation and assistance plans for people with disabilities are being developed.

Disability and recovery

Public apartments—the Government’s long-term solution for those who lost their homes in 2011—are slowly becoming available. The apartments are limited in numbers, but people with disabilities are being prioritized for these.

Yusuke now works at a local NGO advocating disability issues. He is promoting a universal design for the city’s planned infrastructure and shopping and public facilities. He wants to see a new Ishinomaki rise from the ashes, where people with disabilities are more actively and visibly engaged in social life. His dream is to establish an open and creative space in the town centre, where young people with disabilities can work with other community members to rebuild their home town together.

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