Lessons from Japan: In aftermath of earthquake, community means survival

A former Japanese firefighter who went to Japan's quake-struck areas last March, explains what will become most important if an earthquake hits Vancouver.

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Roads and survival

"One of the most important things I learned in that trip to the quake-hit area was the importance of roads," said Ogawa. 

While delivering supplies to people in Miyagi, Ogawa was struck by the sight of people scraping by on just two onigiri (rice balls) per day in one shelter. Just a stone's throw away, across the river, people at another shelter were thriving, receiving three full meals a day, plus many boxes of supplies.

So why was there such a stark contrast between the two? Roads and pathways. 

"In a disaster, roads mean everything," he said. “Once we cleared and rebuilt roads that were destroyed by the quake, supplies flooded in."  

“When you have cleared roads, the aid workers can come in to rescue people, deliver food and provide electricity." 

Priorities and last words

On a more personal level, Ogawa said that the earthquake brought into focus the most important priorities in his life: family and friendships.

“Of course, they were my priorities before,” he explained. “But people often get caught up in trying to work and make a living. My sense of what's truly important was heightened by the earthquake.” 

During the weeks digging through the rubble, many survivors approached his team, inquiring about their loved ones.

“As a firefighter, I deal with this all the time...people are often haunted by the things they didn't tell their loved ones on the last day they saw them. So I make it a point to always say 'thank you' to people in my daily life.”

Weak community ties a liability in event of disaster

After the disaster, many international observers were struck by the orderliness of Japan's disaster zones: there was virtually no fighting or looting. People in northern Japan have always renowned for their strong sense of community, but it especially stood out in the weeks following the quake.  

Ogawa felt that Vancouver had an extraordinary potential for building community – something that proved to be the pillar of Japan's recovery efforts.

“When I first came here, I thought Vancouver had amazing community centres everywhere," he said. "This is an immigrant city, and these community centres are really an ideal place to connect and make friends.” 

While praising Vancouver's “model” community centres, Ogawa also expressed some concern that many residents here didn't seem to know their neighbours. It's an observation backed up by a report by the Vancouver Foundation that Vancouver is a lonely and isolated city compared to other urban centres. 

“The community centres here are great, but is there a community? If there was a disaster, will people here be able to help each other? That's a big question.”

“Nowadays, I go out of my way to make friends with my neighbours in Vancouver,” Ogawa said.

“People warned me not to invite too many people over because I might get robbed, but you need people to notice when something's wrong or when someone goes missing. I told my neighbours to please look out for my wife and children while I'm away in Japan -- it's what people in a community do for each other.”

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