On 11 March 2011, deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, Japan’s most powerful earthquake in recorded history unleashed a tsunami that raced towards the port city of Sendai. Just three minutes after the earthquake, residents received warning of the 7.1 metre wall of water that decimated the city, causing approximately 30,000 buildings to completely collapse.
More than a decade on, and with other cities around the world – including in Ukraine and Türkiye – planning their own reconstruction, what lessons can we share from Sendai?
Housing reconstruction and the care factor
Many residents were made instantly homeless – both in the city and in surrounding areas which also sustained damage. To meet their urgent needs, immediately following the disaster we built roughly 1,500 prefabricated temporary housing units at 18 sites and leased both private and public rental housing to secure about 11,000 homes in 3 months in close collaboration with the central government and Miyagi Prefecture.
When building the prefabricated temporary housing, we worked with care to respond to the needs of disaster victims, including by selecting sites with good accessibility to shopping areas and transportation, and interviewing victims to secure locations which were as near as possible to their former homes. Moreover, we paid careful attention to households with difficult circumstances by making it a priority to move the elderly, people with disabilities, babies and infants, and pregnant women into housing.
Disaster victims and their mental health
As part of a comprehensive plan for long-term reconstruction, we developed about 3,200 public housing units for disaster victims while emphasising proper care for citizen’s mental health.
First, we arranged various room types (a kitchen and 2 rooms for single person, a kitchen and 3 rooms for a household with several individuals, and a kitchen and 4 rooms for a household with 4 or more individuals) on each floor so that we could naturally watch over the elderly households with only a single member as there was concern regarding withdrawal or social isolation.
Second, we constructed community centres on the premises of public housing areas, in addition to rooms which could be used by NPOs which offer support activities to disaster victims as a base for caring for residents.
We took extra care to help residents retain community ties, networks and support by enabling them to live together with residents from their former communities, as well as with their pet animals.
With support easily within reach, nearly 80% of residents responded in a yearly questionnaire that they could “consult about concerns with someone,” a high standard that has been maintained over the years. When it comes to supporting individuals during a crisis, housing measures can have a big impact, and I believe that the top priorities are understanding users’ wishes and supporting their mental health.
Source: Health surveys of disaster public housing residents – Sendai Japan
Contributing to international and local efforts
Finally, I would like to express our gratitude to the international community as Sendai’s recovery from the disaster owed much to the warm support and encouragement we received from around the world. With that support, we will continue in our mission to deploy advanced technology create a “resilient city which leaves no one behind”. We are proud of our progress and will be prouder still if others can learn from our experience to improve their support in times of crisis.
Kazuko Kohri has been Mayor of Sendai since 2017. Having devoted herself to the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) reconstruction since her time in the House of Representatives, she is aiming for Sendai to serve as a world model as a “resilient city which leaves no one behind.”
She won a seat as a member of the house of representatives four terms in a row, and held senior positions for 12 years from 2005 to 2017 such as the Parliamentary Secretary of Cabinet Office and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister in charge of Reconstruction in response to GEJE.
She has been building up a record of achievements including a test flight of the world’s first fully autonomous drones for tsunami evacuation alerts, and the Midterm Review of “Sendai Framework 2015-2030” which was implemented for the first time at the local level, rather than by the national government.