A group of six IRDR members visit the Fukushima Prefecture

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 6 April 2016

From the 8th to the 15th March 2016, a group of students and researchers from UCL and the UCL Academy visited the area affected by the Fukushima- Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in the Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. The group included six members of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction: four PhD students – Nurmala Nurdin, Omar Velazquez, Serena Tagliacozzo and Zoë Mildon – one Masters Five membersstudent – Sandra Camacho Otero – and Professor David Alexander. The visit occurred on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Great Tohoku earthquake and of the resulting tsunami and nuclear accident.

The visit was aimed at investigating the current state of rebuilding in the Fukushima Prefecture and highlighting the positive and negative aspects of the reconstruction process. During the course of the stay, we had the chance to see numerous places, being informed about strategies put in place to ensure food security and listen to how survivors coped with the disaster. On the 12th of March a group was allowed to access to the power plant itself while others visited some temporary housing sites in the prefecture.

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“Visiting Fukushima was an incredible experience. I think all of us were impressed by the efforts made by the community and the government in order to recover from the disaster. Personally, I was amazed by the reconstruction works carried out in the power plant and the current situation of its facilities”, Omar Velazquez, IRDR PhD student.

 

Broadly speaking, the Fukushima Prefecture and Japanese Government rUntitled1esponded well to the disaster: the areas we had the chance to visit were entirely reconstructed in a culturally appropriate manner and information was released to the residents about radiation levels. As additional positive elements, temporary houses were constructed close to or within existing towns and efforts were made to ensure that residents could be both integrated into the new community and maintain relationships with the original one. Much work has been done to ensure control over the safety of the fishery and agricultural goods.

 

“Visiting the Fukushima Prefecture gave me the chance not only visit the nuclear plant itself and see the technical efforts to decontaminate the area, but also gave me the opportunity to talk to people and know the local effort to revitalize the place, sell their products and build resilience in situ.” Sandra Camacho Otero, IRDR Master student.

 

However it should be noted that little chance was given to us to explore the pitfalls of this fast-paced reconstruction. Fukushima prefecture is trying hard to rebuild its reputation as a safe place and to revitalise economic sectors like agriculture and tourism while also investing on robotics and sustainable energy sources. As disaster researchers, it’s crucial for us to highlight both best practices and areas of improvement in order to support decision makers in the hard task of rebuilding after such major disasters. Acknowledging challenges is the first step towards a recovery that attempts to reduce vulnerabilities rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

Masters student, Sandra Camacho Otero, wrote an article (in Spanish) for The Mexican Times on the field trip in Fukushima. Read more here: http://themexicantimes.mx/a-cinco-anos-de-fukushima/

Investigating communications after the Canterbury earthquakes – fieldwork

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 10 September 2015

Serena Tagliacozzo is a PhD student in the IRDR who is investigating the requirements for a web-based platform to allow effective communication between authorities and citizens in the disaster recovery phase. The platform would allow citizens to effectively share their knowledge and experiences with planners and developers, and for authorities to communicate plans to interested parties. Serena has recently visited Christchurch, NZ, to discuss with citizens and authorities the effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that destroyed parts of the city. She shares her experiences in this post.

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When I arrived in Christchurch, on the evening of the 8th August, it was dark and cold. The morning after, the city welcomed me with some snow, which fortunately stopped after few hours. Walking across the city centre, my impression was of a big construction site, with repair works in progress everywhere. The red cones dispersed throughout the city remains the symbol of the Christchurch’s struggle to recover from the devastating earthquakes that hit the Canterbury region in September 2010 and February 2011.

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Following these two large events, the whole area experienced moderate to severe aftershocks for almost two years, making it more difficult for the repair companies to start the demolition/rebuilding of the damaged infrastructure and dwellings and for the population to return to normality. After almost five years from the earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch has now entered into the reconstruction phase. Many aspects of this reconstruction process remain controversial. For example the future of the Christchurch Cathedral (which dates back to the 19th century) is uncertain, with some people wanting to demolish it and rebuild a brand new one while others advocate preserving the historical building.

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The controversies do not exist solely on the rebuilding of the physical environment. The city is split socially, between those who experienced less damage and had their houses repaired in relatively short time, and those living in the most damaged areas whose property has not yet been repaired. For these people, most of who were living in the east part of the city where the liquefaction caused a drop in the ground level (which resulted in an increase of the flood risk), the recovery is far from being complete.

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The scope of my fieldwork was to gather data on the communication practices that take place between government agencies and residents during the reconstruction phase from the Canterbury earthquakes. During the course of my fieldwork, I had the chance to interview and speak with many people from community based groups and associations born in the wake of the earthquake. All of them shared with me their stories of hope and the struggle to recover and to be listened to about their concerns for the future of their city. They also voiced a general distrust toward some of the authorities in charge with the management of the recovery process and concerns about the centralisation in the decision-making.

I also had the chance to interview and meet with government officers working in the main recovery agencies, including Christchurch City Council, Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuilding Team (SCIRT), Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), Earthquake Commission (EQC), New Zealand Police, Red Cross, District Health Board. They told me about the challenges of leading a huge recovery effort and communicating effectively with increasingly frustrated residents. They also confirmed the importance of communicating timely and accurately recovery information through a multitude of channels so that to reach out to the different social groups. Within this communication landscape, social media platforms are being embraced by government agencies to reach a broader audience.

What I will take from this fieldwork is the incredible struggle of Christchurch and the Canterbury region to bounce back (or bounce forward). Whilst some choices made regarding the management of the recovery process are debatable, it should never be forgotten that recover from a disaster is a long-lasting, complex, challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking process. This is true for the residents that live through it, as well as for the government agencies that lead it. Good communication practices between recovery agencies and residents can make this process smoother and more participative.