1 Nov 2011

Coping with devastation eight months on

When a massive tsunami slammed into Japan there were dire estimates about the number of people killed and damage done – eight months on Channel 4 News looks at the country’s tsunami legacy.

Fact and figures from the Japanese tsunami.

The earth shifted on its axis – a coastline was redrawn and a country, Japan, redefined.

Towns and villages along Honshu’s north east coast were obliterated.

The pictures sparked comparisons with the nuclear devastation suffered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan was a country prepared for natural disasters – but not on this scale.

Yet initial estimates about the death toll were exaggerated. There were reports of around 10,000 deaths in the town of Minamisanriku alone.

Eight months on the National Police Agency says, in total, 15,822 people are confirmed dead while another 3,926 remain missing.

There is little doubt that had this disaster occurred in a less developed nation the figures would have been even more horrifying.

But for the survivors, the daunting task of rebuilding their lives remains.

Four hundred thousand people were displaced, 114,000 homes destroyed while more than half a million more were partially destroyed.

Pictures of the disaster were beamed around the world; the world responded by donating more than £2.7bn to the Japanese Red Cross and its sister societies.

But figures obtained by Channel 4 News revealed that three months after the disaster only 15 per cent of this money had been distributed by local government to the victims.

The Japanese Red Cross said it was “deeply concerned” with the delays but added that there were some mitigating circumstances: “Some of the constraints of the cash distribution programme were due to difficulties with beneficiary identification, including the challenges in obtaining the necessary documentation (e.g. disaster victim certificate) to be qualified as a recipient of a cash grant.

“Another important constraint was the loss of staff members at the municipality offices in the tsunami.”

Attempts to treat the injured were also hampered by the lack of medical facilities.

In the coastal area of Tohoku, nine hospitals and 68 clinics were destroyed, while 53 hospitals and 327 clinics were damaged.

The aftermath

People who survived the tsunami have had to live with the violent aftershocks and potential tsunami alerts.

The British Geological Society (BGS) has recorded more than 700 aftershocks with a magnitude of 5.0 or greater – the number between 4.0 and 4.9 has been over 3,700.

Courtesy of the British Geological Society.

(The yellow spots show aftershocks from the 7.2 earthquake on 9 March. The red spots show the aftershocks, so far, from the main 11 March 2011)

Although the numbers appear large the BGS’s Julain Bukits told Channel 4 News it was not unexpected: “Even though we don’t get very many earthquakes of such a high magnitude as the mainshock, the number of aftershocks following the event does, more-or-less, fit the pattern of Omori’s Law.”

Clearing the waste

The World Bank estimates rebuilding could take five years and the cost of the damage is thought to be in the region of £145bn.

In towns and villages across the north east coast of Japan mammoth recyling operations are taking place to deal with the debris.

The tsunami created 22m tonnes – more than ten times the amount of waste collected in Wales every year.

Although much has been done to begin rebuilding Japan’s shattered north east coast, much, much more work remains.