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    Fables of the reconstruction (of the fables)

    A few days ago, Dean’s World contributor Mary Madigan posted a short entry tentatively comparing the reconstruction of New Orleans to that of Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake ten years ago. She cited the Kobe municipal government’s shiny, happy version of the Kobe rebuilding. A commenter piped up with the observation that Japan is a law-abiding, conformist society, the implication being that we can expect things to proceed more efficiently in Japan than in the US, with its competing needs and preferences.

    I don’t think there’s any problem with placing the emphasis on Kobe’s recovery. Human beings live on hope, after all, and the reconstruction of the city really does demonstrate many of the upsides of social and economic liberalization. Given what New Orleans looks like now, it’s a significant comfort to have a real-life example of another first world city that was wrecked and rebuilt in recent memory. Let’s not get too high on those shrine-incense fumes, though, and forget that government screw-ups regarding the Kobe earthquake didn’t stop with inadequate building and land reclamation codes. Reason has what, in my experience, is the best summary of the multitude of little problems that helped delay recovery in Kobe:

    A post-quake report issued by the Kobe YMCA is filled with anecdotes such as this one: Three days after the quake, two women from Kobe Citizens Central Hospital appeared at city hall asking for 10 volunteers to help carry water at the hospital, located about a mile away. Water duty, they explained to city workers, pulled too many skilled nurses from more-urgent medical tasks. Officials on the first floor of city hall turned the women away. Yet on the eighth floor of the same building was a list of 5,000 registered volunteers willing to help any way they could. When the women came back for more help, officials told them to return later with a written request.

    Similar bureaucratic procedures beset rescue and recovery efforts at the national level as well. Officials turned away doctors from the United States because they were not certified to practice medicine in Japan. They quarantined European search dogs while Kobe residents picked through the rubble by hand. Even offers of help from within Japan were refused: Although a disabled phone system presented a critical problem to search-and-rescue efforts, officials refused to distribute cellular phones donated by Nippon Motorola because they didn’t want to issue the required telephone identification numbers. Officials initially rejected an early offer of medical help from the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine because they were unfamiliar with that organization; they changed their minds a week later as a flu virus raged through evacuation shelters.

    Such responses were in marked contrast to succor offered from less-official sectors of Japanese society: Immediately after the earthquake, the Kobe YMCA was swamped with volunteers, many of whom had been turned away by city hall. YMCA managers quickly established an emergency headquarters and organized the volunteers into teams that canvassed damaged neighborhoods and reported back on what victims needed most. By bicycle and on foot–and wearing identifying numbers normally used for YMCA sporting events–volunteers delivered food, water, clothes, and blankets. Even members of the yakuza–Japan’s organized crime gangs–used their networks to bring food, water, and other supplies into the area. Right-wing political groups, whose loudspeaker trucks regularly roam city streets calling for the restoration of the emperor, dropped their act and used their trucks to deliver hot tea to stricken neighborhoods. This all happened as boxes of instant noodles donated by local merchants sat outside city hall in the rain, untouched and undistributed.

    Surveying the post-quake landscape in April 1995, the then-editor of Tokyo Business Today, Hiroshi Fukunga [sic–I assume the name is Fukunaga and this is a typo.–SRK], summarized a disturbing but inescapable lesson from the Kobe experience. “It now seems clear that even in a national emergency the nation’s pen-pushers will not swerve a millimeter from official procedures, even if fellow citizens’ lives are at risk,” wrote Fukunga. “While the hours slopped by and thousands lost their lives in the fiery ruins left by the Kobe disaster, Japanese officials’ top priorities were observing protocol and following precedent.”

    The above is only a tiny fraction of the piece, which follows the reconstruction through 2000 or so.

    In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, immediate relief is still the highest priority; but as recovery in structural terms begins in earnest, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that the Gulf States could be in for some of the same problems as Kobe was. America doesn’t have Japan’s idiosyncratic property laws or collectivist society, no; but red tape is red tape in any culture. (Remember Hurricane Andrew?) There is plenty of time for more recriminations to be hurled back and forth…with the attendant guilt-fueled increases in funding for programs that have proved useless this time around, creation of redundant new agencies of dubitable use, and adventures in showy micromanagement designed to reassure everyone that the government is “doing something.”

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