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Community and Rebuilding After Disaster – Discussion with Daniel Aldrich

Daniel gave a brief lecture at the EI SYMPOSIUM III where he talked about the role of Community in the process of reconstruction after massive disasters, with examples ranging from what to do with his own home in New Orleans after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, to the reconstruction efforts after the earthquake in Kobe in 1995 and the tsunami in Northern Japan in 2011. His research seems to show that community connections are better indicators for the pace of reconstruction than politics, corruption, or money. Follows is an edited transcript of the discussion that followed his presentation.

Audience: One of the things in your first book, you were talking about different levels of social interconnection in some of the...communities around Fukushima, and I’ve since talked to some planners who believe that the communities with less social ties were newer communities that were actually where a lot of the nuclear workers had come from, that they were kind of artificial communities rather than communities that had been stable for a while. But they are speculating and you didn’t address that, so I’m curious as to whether you think that’s true.

Aldrich: You know, I don’t think that’s accurate because most of the workers who come in, they come in between two and five years maximum on those construction projects. I assume we’re talking about construction and not maintenance for example.

Audience: No, I’m talking about construction and working in the plants.

Aldrich: What I saw, whether it’s say Ashihama or now Yashiori, for example, those communities would come in for a maximum of one or two years for a construction firm, [stay in] temporary housing, and then move out again. So in fact in the communities I looked at, I was looking at these population questions...but we also looked at broader questions of the number of people that could go to a kumiai (professional institution) and the fishing cooperatives. Those people won’t come in for a year or two to go fishing and then go out again.

So it certainly could be there are population changes once the plant is approved, but my question...[looks at the time] before the plant is approved; what are the local essential characteristics there in the communities? So it’s certainly possible for a year or two as they are being constructed, populations go up by maybe 500 to 1,000. But don’t forget, the smallest communities I looked at, Utaba and Okuma for example, they were around 7,000 to begin with, right? So if you bring in 500 workers I’m not sure how much that changes local social ties. Again for me the bigger question [relates to] the groups being affected, like the fishermen for example or the farmers whose crops or fish might have what we just saw in Fukushima, which is nuclear blight; people are not going to buy fish or cattle or crops if they’re grown in the backyard of a nuclear power plant. So, yes, the planners, I think they’re right in terms of the appearance; I think they’re wrong in terms of the overall effect.

Hiroto Kobayashi: Thank you very much for your presentation. I was very much impressed and also I did some research about communities and in that case the matsuri (festival) is very important as [the residents] regularly meet and form a tight connection. In the case of Tohoku, I found that in some villages...the younger generation they still worked as fishermen. Fishing is a much better sort of a business than working elsewhere they say and so younger people return [to live where they grew up]. But then the tsunami came and they lost their jobs, and then they just left. So the population is now decreased again, and they cannot come back because they cannot work in the village.

So the problem is, if you have some amount of people you can really connect [to each other], they create a sort of bond. But the problem is they lose their people, and the older generation well they have a strong sort of bond but the younger ones, they left, and it’s very difficult for them to come back. One guy tried to reconnect people using the internet or something like Facebook. That’s another way, that’s a new way, but the younger people are familiar with that path or device. What do you think about losing the population of the younger generation?

Aldrich: These are huge problems... The very basic answer would be, first of all, there are differences in the way younger people form social ties than older people. Older people use face-to-face reciprocity in Japan, so gift-giving for example, being a neighbor nearby [is important], and unfortunately with the process of [re-]construction in most cities, those connections have been broken up by random placement into temporary shelters, often miles away from their original homes.

Now we estimate one in eight communities in Tohoku made an attempt to resettle as groups, that is to move block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, five or six families together. That’s fantastic. Of course the other seven, eight, several of the communities that we’re looking at, didn’t do that, and of course we know from Kobe, let’s say 215 people died, and not because they were sick or because they weren’t healthy or warm; they were in large-scale apartments by themselves, placed there with good intentions by planners who wanted to get them out quickly, and we’ve seen unfortunately the same process here, that people who are elderly and infirm are being placed very far from family ties, doctor networks that they know, in an attempt to get them out of the areas and get them to someplace safe. So I’m clear about that.

You’re exactly right. Populations have changed. There’s a problem with signaling also, which is when, if you’re a business owner, you’re not going to reopen your business until you’re sure people are coming back. [On the other side, as a resident] you’re not going to be coming back until somebody opens a business to sell food or there is this catch 22 situation evolving. Both sides, business owners and residents, are waiting for information, and the more individuals who say, “you know what? I’m not sure what’s going on right now, things are being delayed, money is being spent in Okinawa as opposed to my hometown”. One, we estimate something like 16 percent of the rubble, only 16 percent has been picked up so far. You have all these conflicting signals of what’s going on, so both are losing their desire to wait any longer. So individuals exit at this point because they don’t know if there’s going to be a job for them and businesses don’t know if there will be people living nearby, if they will have a clientele for their business.

There are some attempts now that I have seen at sort of social philanthropy I guess you could say, American firms now investing in local businesses in Tohoku. We are building a sake plant for example, helping to invest in local breweries. Those are very targeted and very small in number but I think if you’re talking about what to do, that might be among the things you could do because it gives you a strong signal - We’re having a new brewery open, it will employ 25 people, you can build a house nearby and be assured of a job a year from now. Otherwise, I’m not sure, the government has sent very mixed signals, both with its actions and with its official plans. There are many communities in Tohoku waiting for approval from the central government for funds. [On top of that] most of the projects are large-scale. They are building bridges, they are building roads. None of this construction will directly benefit individuals who are living there who need to know “do I have a place to even live, a job for my family and my son, or a school for them? “The Ministry of Education has been denying permits to merge schools in some of these areas. So I mean all of the problems now with bureaucracy and past rigid approaches are coming to a head right now, a year-and-a-half after the disaster.

All of the problems you mention I agree with. I think they are actually deeper than that because I think we have the signaling problem where both business owners and local people are waiting for information that they’re not getting and the longer that wait takes, we saw this in New Orleans, the longer the wait is, the probability of them coming back drops. I think we’re going to see much broader depopulation across these areas.

Hiroto Kobayashi: I’m wondering about virtual sort of social networks.

Aldrich: We think those can be in a sense complements to but not substitutes for actual networks. So most of us are virtual friends with our real friends because we have some of them we know in real life and we then Facebook friend them or Twitter them or whatever. We don’t think that really builds a new level of ties, it simply extends existing ties. And those types of networks don’t exist for older people over 65, so again, for the younger people who need information it might help a little bit, but I think for the majority of people living in Tohoku, which are elderly people who don’t have access to those things, I’m not sure those kinds of networks will be helpful to them.

Audience: A very simple question and a simple answer maybe. What do you think the level of having a mortgage adds to the inflexibility or immovability of the affected individual or the individual family?

Aldrich: It’s a mixed bag. We’ve seen this in Kobe, in both Kobe and in New Orleans, so we can track both home ownership versus renting. Having a mortgage is a tie. It’s one of those ties that does lock you in, but not necessarily. My old neighborhood, in New Orleans was thriving, now it looks like this: house, foundation, foundation, blank spot, house, house, house, foundation, blank spot. Most people that I lived near, and with, had mortgages as well, and for some of them it was just not worth trying to rebuild an area where they weren’t sure about schools, they weren’t sure about long-term crime and so forth, so they were willing to short-sell it back to the bank.

There are other ways that you lose money, but for a lot of communities, don’t forget in Tohoku, many of the people built their own houses in some cases, or live with their relatives. A mortgage really doesn’t tie people that we’ve been talking to in Tohoku in most of these villages, that’s not the tie that will keep them there or not. So I think it’s dependent on where you are. In New Orleans as well, most people for example, when they inherited their houses, there was no mortgage to speak of and the house was theirs, so there was nothing to pay off. I’m not sure the mortgage by itself is a critical tie.

Audience: A quick question as well. Does your research show anything concrete about the relationship with bureaucracy and the time to recover for residents in the community of Tohoku?

Aldrich: The bottom line for us was that the strength or weakness of local, regional, and national governments didn’t have a measurable impact at the individual household or neighborhood level. It might set the tone overall or you could get more money back, but simply having an incompetent governor or a corrupt mayor like in New Orleans didn’t make a difference for individuals who were rebuilding their homes or rebuilding their lives. For them, those were sort of bird’s eye level questions.

The question for them was, where is my kid going to go to school? Where do I buy gas for my car? Is it possible for me to find a place to work? Can I rebuild my home with the money that’s coming in from private insurance or public assistance? Most of the people that we talked to didn’t really see the government as a primary question at the end of the day.

In fact, you can measure this pretty well because you can see in some cities that the governor or the mayor switched in the middle of the building process, we saw no effect in that switchover from one mayor to the other or from one governor to the other, in our mind implying that basically it didn’t really matter. It was Mayor Nagin or Mayor Blanco in New Orleans or in this case if certain governors or certain mayors are in place up in Tohoku. There are much broader questions as a society, but individuals I think have much more specific and detailed needs than what a governor or mayor [can offer.]