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Reflections on 2024 Noto earthquake: do we need to pay more attention to the ‘human’ element of disaster?

By Miwako Kitamura, on 3 May 2024

photograph of debris from a destroyed house. A surviving piece of wooden furniture stands in the foreground
Houses destroyed by the 2024 Noto earthquake in Anamizu, 16 April 2024

A 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Noto Peninsula of Japan on New Year’s Day in 2024. Family members had come home to celebrate the New Year when the earthquake hit. Japan has a high level of awareness on disaster preparedness and mitigation. Despite this, more than 240 people lost their lives, 60,000 buildings were damaged and 25,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. It is important to note that the deaths were caused by the earthquake where several buildings, especially the old structures collapsed. The new year’s earthquake also caused a tsunami, which arrived only a few minutes after the earthquake. However, the majority of people died from earthquakes, with only two people killed by the tsunami, which shows high awareness about tsunami preparedness among the general population, compared to the earthquakes. This shows more work needs to be done on earthquake preparedness in Japan, beyond a focus on developing and investing in resilient infrastructure.

In this short blog, we will shed some light on the experiences of people who are managing the evacuation centres, especially those evacuation centres that are led by the community. We will examine the current situation by putting gender and communities at the centre of our analysis.

photograph of a large room with two long tables in the middle of the room. Books stacked up on the left wall. Chairs, blankets, and some kitchen equipment stacked on the right wall. Blankets stacked up against back windows too.
Community Evacuation Centre, in Sunran No Sato Kobushi. Photo taken on 16 April 2024

Although there are many government run evacuation centres, there are also several community-run evacuation centres. In Japan, community-led shelters are commonly referred to as “voluntary shelters.” Leaders of these shelters typically include local community figures and temple and shrine heads, and, as observed during the Great East Japan Earthquake, leaders of traditional performing arts groups have frequently assumed these roles. Importantly, the foremost consideration for these community-oriented shelters is their trustworthiness. What we found was that due to the gender division of labour, which is still strongly present in Japanese society, taking care of the people in the evacuation centres becomes and remains the responsibility of women, including cooking, cleaning, and caretaking roles.

One important thing to note here is that these women, often wives/daughters/daughters-in-law, of the community leaders who automatically become the caretaker of the entire community in the times of crisis, are themselves the survivors of such events. However, they need to sacrifice their own needs and look after others. With harmony being the central key in Japanese social organisation, speaking of their own needs is seen as being selfish. Hence, no one is willing to do that: they would rather suffer than to bear the consequences of social stigma. This creates an environment where these women who are responsible for running the evacuation are often double victims: victims of the disaster and also the victims of post-disaster responsibilities.  

The person responsible for one of the evacuation centres we visited said it is comparatively manageable soon after the disaster as we only need to manage their immediate needs and there are more volunteers. However, as the time passes, people would like their normal life to return, which means a need for proper meals, proper sanitation, healthcare services, better accommodation and so on. The volunteers often go back to everyday life and the support from the government often dries out in about three months but the needs of those who are left behind – still in evacuation centres for various reasons – remain or they need even further support. Hence, taking care of the evacuees becomes a bigger responsibility, which needs to be factored into the discussions around disaster mitigation.

As evidenced during fieldwork and engagement activities in the communities affected by the earthquake in Noto, there are key local contexts and practices which must be appreciated and factored into future preparedness and response activities for disaster risk reduction. Discussions with stakeholders and local leaders for example highlighted the central value of community involvement in shaping and informing responses to disasters.

Photograph of rubble from a destroyed building.
Houses destroyed by the 2024 Noto earthquake in Anamizu, 16 April 2024

While it was reported that affected communities following the earthquake were more reserved in their engagement with the national government, they engaged readily and openly when responses were designed and driven by local communities, as evidenced by the creation of these community evacuation centres. These observations on the need to centre community involvement in disaster risk reduction and response are further substantiated by existing evidence from another disaster case study in Japan— the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which underscored a similar significance regarding the importance of contextually-appropriate and community-supported activities for disaster risk reduction and preparedness and response to events including earthquakes and tsunamis in regionally and geographically diverse countries, like Japan.

Our visit to the Noto Peninsula also revealed important observations and considerations on local understandings of leadership in disaster contexts, and how entrenched and gendered understandings of what constitute leadership can serve as a barrier to further vital involvement and participation of communities during events like earthquakes.  This was made apparent during discussions with female local leaders in Noto who had noted and reflected on how, despite their extensive involvement in disaster response and support activities, they did not consider themselves to be ‘leaders’ in these disaster contexts. Instead, many of their channels of leadership and support, including organising community efforts, food provision and emotional support had been regarded as traditionally ‘female’ associated practices and expectations rather than leadership roles during emergencies like earthquakes.

Again, this underscores the need to integrate local thinking and contexts in working to improve and promote local leadership during disasters in Japan by including gender frameworks to uncover how existing power dynamics and divisions of labour produce inequitable understandings of leadership, and where possible and when contextually-appropriate, to engage and work with these local communities to promote and centre diverse profiles and practices of disaster leadership and engagement of women and gender-diverse communities.

Our observations from these fieldwork activities investigating gender and women’s leadership in the Noto Peninsula also hold broader importance for the fields of disaster risk reduction and global health beyond preparing for and responding to earthquakes. Japan continues to be vulnerable to a broad scope of public health risks including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic activity, floods, typhoons and the climate change emergency. Despite ongoing disaster and resilience planning, there remains a critical need for the ongoing consideration and integration of gender-focused and community-centred participation and leadership activities as revealed during these fieldwork engagements to ensure that future responses and recovery to these events are both sustainable and equitable. 


Co-authors

Dr Miwako Kitamura is an Assistant Professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University

Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University

Ms Hayley Leggett is a PhD candidate at the School of Engineering at Tohoku University

Dr Anna Matsukawa is an Associate Professor at University of Hyogo

Dr Stephen Roberts is Lecturer in Global Health at the Institute for Global Health at University College London

Dr Punam Yadav is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s).

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Creating a relative suitability score for school buildings as evacuation shelters

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 30 October 2020

A new paper published in Natural Hazards provides a method and worked case study from the Philippines for creating a relative suitability score of school buildings as use for evacuation shelters.

Tsioulou et  al., 2020, A method for determining the suitability of schools as evacuation shelters and aid distribution hubs following disasters: case study from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

How can we make a decision based on multiple criteria?  How can we take qualitative expert opinions and create a quantitative comparison of the importance of different factors for decision-making?  What factors should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different buildings as evacuation shelters?  How can we identify which buildings could benefit most from cost-effective improvements? What do you think about whether school buildings should be used as evacuation shelters?

Alexandra Tsioulou (Willis Tower Watson, formerly UCL IRDR), Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), Dexter Sumaylo Lo (Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro) and Rebekah Yore (UCL IRDR and Rescue Global), as part of the PRISMH project, carried out expert opinion questionnaires and used the Analytical Hierarchy Process to create weightings of different criteria that should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different school buildings as evacuation shelters in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines. Site surveys were carried out to evaluate the scores for each criteria and these were then combined to provide the relative suitabilities.  The paper provides an example methodology that can be applied elsewhere. The findings will be used to help make local recommendations.

IRDR Masters student publishes Early Warning and Temporary Housing Research. This is part of the on-going collaboration between UCL-IRDR and IRIDeS-Tohoku University

By Joanna P Faure Walker, on 4 June 2018

Angus Naylor, an IRDR Masters student alumni and Masters Prize Winner, has published the research conducted for his Independent Research Project. The research was carried out as part of his MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience with me, his project supervisor, and our collaborator at Tohoku University IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Dr Anawat Suppasri.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS wanted to join forces to learn more about both the fundamental science and impacts of disasters both in Japan and around the world. Naylor’s recently published paper adds to other collaborative outputs from the two institutes: Mildon et al., 2016, investigating Coulomb Stress Transfer within the area of earthquake hazard research; Suppasri et al., 2016 investigating fatality ratios following the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami; and IRDR Special Report 2014-01 on the destruction from Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The two institutions have met on a number of occasions, and have an upcoming symposium in October 2018.

In 2014, three and half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed much of Tohoku’s coastline, I led and Dr Anawat Suppasri organised a joint UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS team, visiting residents of six temporary housing complexes in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. While there, we used written questionnaires and informal group interviews to investigate the suitability of early warning systems and the temporary housing among the elderly population affected by this event.

When analysing the results, we found overall that age was not the principal factor in affecting whether a warning was received, but did play a significant role regarding what was known before the warning was received, whether action was taken and how temporary and permanent housing was viewed. The results suggest that although the majority of respondents received some form of warning (81%), no one method of warning reached more than 45% of them, demonstrating the need for multiple forms of early warning system alerts. Furthermore, only half the respondents had prior knowledge of evacuation plans with few attending evacuation drills and there was a general lack of knowledge regarding shelter plans following a disaster. Regarding shelter, it seems that the “lessons learned” from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake were perhaps not so learnt, but rather many of the concerns raised among the elderly in temporary housing echoed the complaints from 16 years earlier: solitary living, too small, not enough heating or sound insulation and a lack of privacy.

An example of Temporary Housing following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami visited during the fieldwork for this study (Photograph: Dr Joanna Faure Walker)

The research supports previous assertions that disasters can increase the relative vulnerabilities of those already amongst the most vulnerable in society. This highlights that in order to increase resilience against future disasters, we need to consider the elderly and other vulnerable groups within the entire Early Warning System process from education to evacuation and for temporary housing in the transitional phase of recovery.

The paper, ‘Suitability of the early warning systems and temporary housing for the elderly population in the immediacy and transitional recovery phase of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’ published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, can be accessed for free until 26th July here, after this date please click here for standard access.

The authors are grateful for the fieldwork funds which came from The Great British Sasakawa Foundation funding to UCL-IRDR and MEXT’s funding to IRIDeS. The joint UCL-IRDR1 and IRIDeS2 fieldwork team comprised Joanna Faure Walker1, Anawat Suppasri2, David Alexander1, Sebastian Penmellen Boret2, Peter Sammonds1, Rosanna Smith1, and Carine Yi2.

Angus Naylor is currently doing a PhD at Leeds University
Dr Joanna Faure Walker is a Senior Lecturer at UCL IRDR
Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at IRIDeS-Tohoku University