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Why Japan will Succeed More Rapidly in its Recovery than Haiti and New Orleans

The March/April print and online
editions of PA TIMES featured several articles on the aftermath of the
devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. Contact
Christine McCrehin, [email protected], to find out how to receive the
paper. See the Related Articles box for links to read more of the featured articles.

Lynda Boswell

With the culture deeply assimilated in Japan, characteristics based on the people’s past in Japan colors the reaction of the people. The constant comments on their resolve and moving forward are remarkable. How is this different and how did the governments react in the other two tragedies? The hypothesis is that Japan will be more rapid in its recovery. New Orleans, many years later, has not seen the construction that should have been completed for such devastation. And Haiti, a year later, still has many families living in tents. What can we learn from the Japanese, and how can that be a teaching model to apply in both Haiti and New Orleans. Conversely, what lessons from Haiti and New Orleans can be of value to the Japanese during this crisis?

The comparative issues between the three major acts of nature which have impacted countries are the recent earthquake which triggered the tsunami in Japan, the Haiti earthquake in 2009 and the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans. Those disasters stopped the countries in their tracks in regard to economy, distress and total devastation. No doubt exists to the loss of life, property and income.

In all of these examples, the governments were not wholly prepared. With recent news, one would make the assumption that the Japanese were the most prepared of all of them, but even in this case it is not entirely true. The biggest criticism has been the handling of information regarding the extent of the radiation crisis and in addition, the government was not entirely prepared for an evacuation that would entail obtaining enough food, water and warmth for those in evacuation centers. In this, Japan is not alone in some of its missteps. New Orleans was a total mess in the evacuation to the stadium, and Haiti’s solution has not bided any better. Although each of the governments will attempt to compensate, differences exist that will determine how successful each country will be in overcoming these natural disasters.

The Japanese do not have the sense that government will come and rescue them. As a people, they depend on themselves for the most part. The part of the country that has been affected was not as populated. Though the deaths are tragic and will most likely top over 20,000 people dead, Japan already has steps in place for recovery: rescue, finding bodies, clearing debris, rebuilding. Of course, these steps did not take into account the added radiation threat which will affect the recovery efforts.

New Orleans had high profile fundraisers, popular entertainment personalities to assist in its recovery efforts, emergency funding and various donations. According to USA Today, New Orleans still struggles with crime, unemployment, homelessness and red tape for recovery. Japan will not have these same issues as the population directly affected was not near as great as in New Orleans. Although Japan does pride itself in its orderly society, looting still occurred in the aftermath of this tragedy but not to the extent of that in the United States and Haiti.

In Haiti, over 220,000 people died and the temporary camps still exist today. Though much money has been dedicated to help rebuild the country, the people have not seen this recovery effort a year later. Whether government is to blame, or the nonprofits, leadership seems to be lacking in organizing a truly rebuilding effort. The United States continues to review and learn lessons in its reaction to New Orleans, which will benefit Japan as officials from both sides have met to review what worked and what did not.

In addition, the commonality was that the most affected were the poor and elderly. Each country had to admit some misstep, which is very interesting. No matter how much one can prepare, the unexpected will happen. In New Orleans, enough advance notice prevented many more deaths, although the City seemed thoroughly wiped out. Most of the dead were elderly and poor. Americans were appalled at hearing that doctors and nurses had to leave the bedridden to their death, but unfortunately, this similar account also occurred in Japan. In Haiti, poor construction along with the highest magnitude earthquake in 200 years contributed to the high rate of deaths.

The differences that will affect recovery are stark, with one country on one extreme, the other in another extreme and the United States quite in the middle. Interesting to note about Haiti which could be a huge hampering effort to recovery is the lack of security for life and property. Vigilante justice is the norm, not the exception. Until the government can provide the basics in this regards, a concerted honest effort in rebuilding cannot even truly begin. In addition, being rated as one of the most corrupt nations does not help. Harshly put, it is not uncommon for well meaning NGOs to inadvertently take part in such a cultural norm. Therefore, Haiti’s recovery efforts truly are dependent on the moral and ethics of government leadership and an honest effort to be motivated in helping the poorest people.

Japan stands a better chance in recovery for the reasons Haiti cannot: security for life and property does exist, including an orderly society. That being said, transparency issues have come to light, however, those who are familiar with the Japanese culture would not be surprised. The country prides itself in efficiency, productivity and drive.

The idea of failure, whether realistic or not, carries the deep stigma of shame. Therefore, in its bid to minimize the urgency of the radiation at the nuclear plant, authorities went into repressed mode subduing the appearance of failure. This has amounted to a credibility issue as to the actual danger that is posed by the problems at the nuclear plant. In this, Japan’s government or/and authorities are not significantly better than other countries’ reaction in light of failures.

The difference which does stand out, is that the people as a whole are just as subdued in their anger and outward appearance of blatant dismay and helplessness in obtaining solid information as to how they should proceed. However, the people are currently trying to rebuild despite an impending disaster that they cannot control, ie. radiation and its economic consequences.

When the United States was responding to its unprecedented evacuation and subsequent failures in New Orleans, the people’s reaction magnified the existing crime and looting. Order and security was also lacking in this example, hampering efforts to provide emergency services. Five years later, recovery seems to stumble along haphazardly with the continued issue of transparency and accountability of those entrusted to wisely utilize the billions of dollars in aid for that city.

Japan does not have the most transparent government, but the people and the culture forge ahead, whether it’s from past devastations from World War II, or natural disasters. Their courage and spirit gives more strength to community responsibility rather than personal. The reward for such a communal culture, in addition to solid security and safety, is that it will recover faster than Haiti and New Orleans.

Lynda Boswell is an independent international monitoring and evaluation consultant, a former town and county administrator and recently was involved with the National Team as an advisor to the Iraq Local Governance Program. Email: [email protected]

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