As the two-year anniversary of the disaster that struck northeastern Japan on March 11th, 2011, a new report by Internews Europe reveals how communication saved lives and was essential in helping survivors in the days, weeks and monthsafter to recover from the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power crisis.
The report, ‘Connecting the Last Mile’, explains, for instance, how the dramatic evacuation of a mother sheltering from the mega tsunami on a roof top in Kesennuma was triggered by a Twitter message sent from her son on the other side of world in London to the Deputy Governor of Tokyo, who called the Tokyo Fire Department and arranged for a helicopter to fly from Sendai to rescue her.
The report also analyses a raft of communication initiatives that were rapidly rolled out by the Japanese Government, national media, technology players such as Google, and by the crisis mapping community.
The report highlights that Japan’s highly advanced early warning system proved key in saving lives, but greatly underestimated the likely height of the tsunami and people perished by failing to evacuate to higher ground.
Many failed to receive updated warnings about the tsunami height when local relays such as community wireless speakers were damaged by the earthquake or disabled by power cuts.
A major social media and tech emergency response provided a vital information lifeline to survivors, but was blunted by the large scale power blackouts, the disruption of mobile telecommunications networks and by the demographics of the disaster which affected coastal areas where 30% of the population is over 60 years old and less accustomed to accessing information online.
Low tech local community-led media initiatives (radio, newspaper and newsletters) met the urgent needs of communities affected by the disaster for information on the missing and the dead, on shelter, food, water and fuel in ways that national media, in particular, TV, was unable to.
Humanitarian responders were not aware of the powerful information resources created by the volunteer technical community, and lacked information sharing systems and coordination mechanisms, which led to survivors being repeatedly asked the same questions by different agencies.
The report makes several recommendations to the international humanitarian community that include providing technical and financial support to local media, given their strategic importance in disaster response and recovery systems.
‘Information saves lives and the Great East Japan Earthquake experience proves this ’ says report author, Lois Appleby, a first responder in Japan with CARE International at the time of the crisis. ‘The report also shows that for many communities struggling to recover from the triple disaster that struck Japan, rather than the high technology for which Japan is known - in the absence of power and with telecommunications networks damaged - it was the lowest of low tech media such as handwritten newspapers that proved invaluable.‘
‘Every disaster is unique, the Great East Japan Earthquake no less so’ says Dr Randolph Kent, Director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme, Kings College. ‘The Japan disaster may, however, be a portent of future crises that impact on vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure in multiple dimensions. Internews’ report provides valuable lessons for us all by unravelling one part of this complexity by answering how – in one of the most media rich, digitally enabled societies in the world - devastated communities received vital information to help them survive and recover.‘
Download the full report in English here or read the report online in English here. Download the Executive Summary in Japanese here. Connecting the Last Mile was financed by Internews Europe with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
More on this report: Local Community Media Vital for Disatser-Affected Communities, by Astrid Zweynert, AlertNet
Storify of the Report Launch Event, 6th March at GSMA HQ in London.