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Wreckage in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
10:36 a.m., Aug. 31, 2011--It has been said that natural disasters are
equalizers that affect the rich and poor, the healthy and sick, and the
young and the old alike.
But Tricia Wachtendorf, associate director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center (DRC), whose scholarship examines disaster mitigation and emergency responses, disagrees.
People are impacted differently, the sociology professor explains.
For example, the frail elderly might have difficulty evacuating quickly
enough. People with a range of disabilities might experience challenges
in shelters without power or limited accessibility. Low-income
populations might have limited supplies on hand to survive days without
outside help, or might be challenged in the recovery phase.
Wachtendorf, whose research is currently featured on the National Science Foundation (NSF) website,
has witnessed this disparity firsthand in numerous disasters: following
the 9/11 attacks, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and
most recently, the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
An access ramp to a community building in a temporary shelter complex.
Soon after the Japan disaster, DRC deployed visiting scholar Takumi
Miyamoto, a doctoral student from Osaka University whose research
examines long-term earthquake recovery. Miyamoto volunteered in Miyagi
Prefecture from March 27 through May 30 and debriefed DRC staff on the
disaster upon his return.
The most important piece of disaster relief, he says, is direct
communicationmeeting survivors face-to-face and experiencing their
In June, as part of a social science team led by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute
(EERI) through funding from NFS, Wachtendorf and doctoral student
Rochelle Brittingham joined nine other academics, emergency managers,
and urban planners on a reconnaissance mission to Japan. There, they
traveled along the coast visiting many tsunami-impacted communities,
talking with survivors and attending briefings by government officials,
non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community leaders and
The catastrophe has generated surprises, unprecedented challenges,
and new issues in multiple domains of disaster risk reduction, the
11-member team wrote in an article appearing in the September issue of Earthquake Spectra, the professional journal of EERI.
UD's Tricia Wachtendorf in front of an emergency management office destroyed in the tsunami.
This was a widespread event impacting three prefecture jurisdictions
with little available space, Wachtendorf explains. Where to sort the
debris? Where to put in place temporary housing, let alone permanent
housing? How the nuclear meltdown has impacted the resources needed?
This complex catastrophe continues to challenge the country months
later, and we have much to learn from their experiences.
Because of ongoing collaborations between the DRC and Center for Disabilities Studies
examining emergency preparedness training for people with disabilities
in Delaware, Wachtendorf was particularly interested in the disasters
impact on those with disabilities, including frail elders, who we heard
a lot about, and non-elders with a range of impairments, who we heard
very little about.
Officials in Japan had very little information on the actual
experiences of people with physical disabilities, and particularly those
with cognitive and developmental impairments, she says.
In the tsunami-affected areas of Miyagi Prefecture, for example, more
than 53,000 individuals had been previously identified as having
disabilities, but the Japan Disability Forum was only able to contact
1,386 of those individuals as of June 17. Although routine registries
were in place for those who receive disability-related government
assistance, many jurisdictions were reluctant to share information with
social welfare organizations because of privacy restriction concerns.
Without an ability to track persons with disabilities after this
disaster, social welfare organizations, researchers and advocates were
unable to determine what is happening with large numbers of disaster
survivors who live with disabilities, Wachtendorf says.
People from the same neighborhood share this shelter, and residents
voted to allow food in the room and to keep the space open to encourage
Some communities had prior arrangements for organizations to open and
operate specially designated shelters. Other communities, she found,
were reluctant to open these shelters out of fear they wouldnt meet
And while the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 spiked huge increases in
volunteerism, it appeared that the 2011 earthquakethe largest in
Japanese historysaw significantly fewer volunteers. One of
Wachtendorfs Japanese colleagues suggested that these best practices
may have served as a deterrent in a culture that values rules and
Its an interesting line of research worth pursuing, Wachtendorf
noted. We want to be as clear as possible in our plans, but we dont
want to discourage the improvisation and flexibility inherent in
successful disaster responses.
Because the EERI trip was intended to serve as a starting point for
more systematic studies, faculty and students from the Disaster Research
Center will be making more trips to the country to continue their
research on volunteer efforts and survivors with disabilities.
Our hope is to advance social science understanding about
disasters, she says, and to understand the applied implicationsthe
so what factorof what improvements reduce loss of life, improve
quality of life and facilitate recovery in an meaningful way.
Article by Artika Rangan
Photos courtesy Tricia Wachtendorf
Originally published by UDaily.