A Minute With...

disaster recovery expert Robert Olshansky

5/2/2011  8:00 am

In March, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rattled Japan, triggering a tsunami and the near-meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Rob Olshansky, a U. of I. professor of urban and regional planning, has written extensively about post-disaster recovery planning and environmental impact assessment. He spent the 2004-2005 academic year studying earthquake recovery as a visiting professor at Kyoto University in Japan. He discussed Japan’s current recovery efforts with Dusty Rhodes, arts and humanities editor at the News Bureau.

Can you compare this crisis to the ones in Indonesia and Haiti, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island?

image of professor rob olshanskyThis is an unusual crisis in several ways. First, it combines enormous tsunami devastation with a huge and unprecedented radiation evacuation zone. It was, of course, also a large earthquake. Fortunately, the damage from shaking alone is relatively small. But the earthquake greatly affected transportation routes, and so this has made it difficult to deliver supplies, manage evacuees, and conduct searches, debris removal, etc. It is also unusual in that it affects a very large area.

Most important, it is of national significance. It strikes the country at a time when population is declining, the economy is deflating, and there is a leadership crisis. The national debt is large, and reconstruction will be expensive. All of this is creating great national soul searching.

With respect to Indonesia, both of these events have shown that tsunami waves can be extraordinarily high, up to 100 feet or more. This is sobering. It is difficult to prepare for such wave heights, with relatively short warning times for evacuation.

Unlike a place like Haiti, this disaster is not economically debilitating to Japan. Like the U.S., the country has considerable resources. That said, Japan will need to find the resources itself – it cannot count on the World Bank or wealthier countries to help finance its reconstruction. And that kind of money won’t be easy for Japan to find.

Given the magnitude of this disaster, how does recovery begin?

Recovery is accomplished by everyone, slowly doing what they need to do to start to return to their lives. But an important need is money. Large sums of money will need to be allocated by the central government for infrastructure and to assist private reconstruction in various ways. These reconstruction policies and funding decisions have not yet been made by the central government. Some committees have begun discussions, but these seem to be in the early stages.

It is these discussions that I am trying to follow right now. I am aware that Japanese officials have been investigating recovery methods in the U.S., China, and Indonesia, and probably many other places as well. I expect the recovery to be more decentralized and slower than the Japanese have been used to.

The cost estimate most often cited by the media is $300 billion. Is that accurate?

That seems to be a reasonable estimate at this point. There is a great deal of uncertainty, but this number seems to be the midpoint.

Another problem Japan is facing is severe soil liquefaction associated with this quake, because it lasted so long (five minutes). Does this complicate recovery?

Depending on how widespread it is, and whether it occurred in urbanized areas, it could slow recovery by necessitating extensive ground remediation and utility repairs.

I think a larger problem may be the considerable areas that are now under water – I have seen an estimate that an area equivalent to the size of Tokyo is now underwater as a result of the tsunami and deformation from the earthquake.

The media has reported that the Japanese government plans to increase sales tax by 3 to 8 percent to help pay for reconstruction. Is that a good idea?

Any way you look at it, the nation will have to pay for this. If they don’t want to get further into debt, then a sales tax may be a good alternative. The downside is that it could slow the economy, but I suppose any means of paying $300 billion without using debt would inevitably slow the economy. As I’ve noted, I am aware that they are casting a wide net to gather alternative ideas.

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