“The biggest failing behind the Fukushima disaster was not one of technology, but of the authorities and their response,” said Japan’s Vice Minister of Trade and Industry Keiro Kitagami, at the opening of the G1 Global Conference on November 3. “Japan’s safety technology is still the world’s best,” he said.
Later, a panel on crisis management looked at the tragedy through a wider lens. What has been learned from March 11? Indeed, how much worse than the “worst case scenario” should any nation plan for?
Posing the question was the session moderator, visiting RAND Corporation fellow and former Cabinet secretary Kotaro Tamura. The first panelist to answer was James Bartis, Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation. The company consults for the US government on man-made and natural catastrophes, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill.
“That’s the wrong question,” Bartis told Tamura. “What you should be asking is ‘How much can I spend, and how should I spend it?’” He emphasized the importance of disaster-response affordability and efficiency. In other words, value for your crisis-management dollar (or yen).
Technology can save money, said Satoru Nishikawa, director at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. He described household gas cut-off devices, earthquake activated bullet-train brakes, and other automated systems that remove human error from the equation.
Andrew Morral, also of RAND, expanded on Bartis’s theme, stressing the need to cultivate rapid reaction. He said this might be helped by such programs as the “policy [role playing] games” that RAND conducts for government and management. “But you can never plan for a specific disaster,” he said. “Every time we see a disaster, we see how terrible we are at predicting the future.”
He advocated flexibility and “divergent thinking,” to build systems and teams of personnel he described as “robust” – able to withstand the confusion of crisis situations – and adaptive to change.
The key, said Bartis, lies in establishing disaster-response leadership that is separate from the political top – which cannot stay constantly involved at ground level. “One rung below,” he suggested. He also stressed the need to nominate “incident commanders” – responsible people at the scene, whether in the home, the village, or the metropolis.
In the wake of 9/11, said Morral, RAND identified conflicts between the US federal government’s response and the efforts of local authorities such as the New York Fire Department.
A similar situation arose in Tohoku, with local governments stymied or confused by a seemingly paralyzed national administration. Indeed, the interminable bickering at the time between the government and LDP in Tokyo will be remembered for a long time by disaster victims left waiting for urgent aid.
But it should be remembered that further complications arise when a national government gets too involved. Morral warned of the “moral hazard” he saw after Katrina, by which the federal government began taking charge of even small crises. “It creates less incentive for local communities to invest in their own security,” he said.
Businesses prepare for disasters too, but as Morral pointed out, governments have it tougher because there are so many different issues to resolve. For governments, it’s not just a matter of restoring productivity, but of saving lives, jobs, and the environment.
Also vital is the obligation to keep the public informed. The BBC’s Nik Gowing remarked from the audience on the significance of social networking. “A major problem is that the public now learns information before the government is prepared to release it,” he said. He favored the rapid publishing of information – and then letting the public decide on its interpretation.
The panel was refreshing for the reason that no one was kidding themselves that they offered a simple answer. There was humility in the recognition that crisis response is often about trying to grasp uncontrollable acts of god. But the need for more creative thinking in the lessons Japan draws from Tohoku was implicit.