Monday, Jan. 17, 2000
Staff writer KOBE -- Local government officials marked the fifth anniversary of the Kobe earthquake by announcing that the last temporary shelter has been closed and that it was time to move on and take stock of the lessons learned. But while much of Kobe and the surrounding area has recovered, many problems, most notably care for the elderly, linger, as well as anger at local officials for placing emphasis on the reconstruction of buildings over social welfare needs. "Eighty percent of Kobe has been rebuilt," Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama told an international symposium Sunday, two days after the city announced the last of the temporary shelters had closed. "It is time to look toward the future." At one point in summer 1995 nearly 48,000 shelters had been erected in and around Kobe. In the days immediately following the quake, local officials were harshly criticized for failing to coordinate an effective rescue operation, while the central government failed to promptly respond to -- or outright refused -- offers of international assistance. Stories of Swiss rescue dog teams stopped at Kansai airport while officials dithered over red tape and the Foreign Ministry's rejection of U.S. military assistance drew intense criticism from many in Japan and abroad. With the closure of the last temporary shelter, therefore, local officials were eager to demonstrate that they had learned a number of important lessons about local, national and international cooperation and disaster relief. At Sunday's symposium, attended by nearly 400 disaster- relief experts from Kobe, Hyogo and abroad, Kojiro Niino, chairman of the symposium, pointed to the main lessons learned from the experience. "First, we must continue to promote crisis management that is flexible enough to adopt to unforeseen circumstances. We also have to achieve coordination between the local community and government officials. City planning, including plans for parks and open spaces, is necessary and international cooperation must be strengthened," Niino said. One of the most controversial issues over the past five years has been the local government's temporary housing arrangements. Small metal shelters, some only 25 sq. meters, were home to tens of thousands of people over the past five years. In the months immediately after the quake, foreign mental health experts criticized Kobe's temporary housing arrangements for offering little privacy and warned that quake survivors could develop mental health problems. Japanese attendees to the symposium agreed this was an important lesson learned, although Niino, in reference to the privacy issue, noted there was no international standard for proper aid and said cultural differences should be taken into consideration. While Kobe officials were attempting to assure international visitors that important lessons had been learned and that recovery continued smoothly, polls and private surveys told conflicting stories. A city-sponsored poll showed that more than 44 percent of residents were satisfied with their lives. But another poll revealed that more than 40 percent surveyed said there were still many problems; only about 30 percent said things were proceeding smoothly. A major problem Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture face is the large proportion, nearly 37 percent, of people over 65 years old living in public housing. At the symposium, Sasayama and Hyogo Gov. Toshitami Kaihara stressed the importance of caring for such people, but neither offered any concrete plans or new proposals. Instead, both insisted overall economic revitalization was the key to their welfare. Sasayama in particular stressed the development of Kobe harbor as the way forward. He made no mention, however, of the controversial 310 billion yen Kobe airport project or the city's worsening bond debts, now at nearly 3 trillion yen. Antiairport activists will begin a campaign to recall the mayor later this week precisely on these grounds.Five years after the quake, Kobe officials say lessons about disaster preparedness have been learned. Now that the shelters are gone, they are emphasizing as never be fore that priority now needs to be given to construction and development of buildings, artificial islands and airports so that the lessons can be put into practice.