HIGASHI-MATSUSHIMA, Japan – Picking up the pieces and hitting that restart button in the aftermath of a natural disaster is never easy. Where does one even begin? Add to that the loss of family, friends and every hope for the future, and you’re left with very little to go on.
This could have been for the case for a little coastal community located in the Miyagi Prefecture, six years ago, when the Great East Tsunami struck parts of Japan. But it wasn’t. In fact, it has been quite the opposite, a journey to rebuild a city, one block at a time.
The Tsunami which followed an equally devastating earthquake, greatly ravaged the coastal city destroying around 73% of all housing, flooding agricultural land and leaving 1,133 people dead, of which 24 people are still considered missing to this day.
But the sheer resilience and commitment of the residents in the town, saw Higashi- Matsushima rise from rubble, which the Tsunami left it in, quite literally, in fact. The town is a perfect example of what can be achieved post a natural disaster if the Central government, local prefecture and people work in tandem.
“We cleared 1.098 million tons of rubble through great community effort. People who had lost their jobs after the disaster, joined in and divided the rubble into 14 categories to ease waste management”, said Mr. Iwao Atsumi, the Mayor at the Higashi- Matsushima City Office.
Because the rubble was categorised, waste was easily incinerated or recycled based on its content which resulted in savings of taxpayer funds. Debris was cleared and the town returned to a semblance of normalcy, at a time when they needed it the most.
But can this be emulated in our little island communities following a natural disaster? Of course it can!
All it took was the determination on part of the residents of Higashi-Matsushima and effective leadership of the city council in the days and months after the disaster.
“It is very important for people in smaller communities to communicate well to discuss their future hopes in the time of reconstruction”, added Mr. Atsumi when asked what kept the spirit of community alive and strengthened the resilience of the people.
“Try to make people look forward. It has to start with a bottom up method which is why communication is very important. Everybody lost their hopes for tomorrow immediately after the disaster, however as time went by, people regained their emotional strength and worked hard to make things better.”
Fiji isn’t all that different from the little coastal town of Higashi-Matsushima. We share a similar bond of family, rich culture, old history, an affinity to seafood and are both vulnerable to natural disasters. But what makes the people here different is their determination to get right back on the wagon. Every single time. Regardless.
When Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc last year, our Fijian communal instincts kicked in, and everyone from around the country and even the diaspora pitched in to help wherever possible. But what we lacked was a bottom up approach to dealing with the reconstruction and redevelopment of the cyclone-stricken areas in the aftermath.
This is what we can learn from Higashi-Matsushima. Before formulating a reconstruction plan, the city met and discussed with over 2000 residents who were farmers, fishermen, junior high school students and regular mums and dads. With the help of experts, they formulated a reconstruction plan built on the aspirations of their people.
“The municipality tried to reconstruct the means of livelihood for the people, like agriculture or fishing so they could get back to their lives. Municipalities must provide support for people starting their lives again. This will help them get back on their feet.”
Story and Photos By Rachna Nath