By Ann Weru
SENDAI, 7 April 2015 – Four years on from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, the country’s business sector has lived up to its reputation for resilience and shown clearly why disaster preparedness is so important for recovery.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 11 March 2011 battered the city of Sendai, which has just hosted the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, an event that offered a key opportunity to showcase the hazard-prone country’s ability to deal with a crisis and to build back better.
The magnitude 9.0 quake, which was among the strongest recorded in more than a century, claimed over 18,000 lives, left almost 230,000 people temporarily homeless and caused damage worth billions of dollars.
Among the companies hit hard was Kirin Brewery, a leading Japanese beer and beverages maker. But the firm’s Sendai plant has also recovered rapidly. The reason: a disaster preparedness plan.
Key elements of the plan included regular evacuation drills and building stockpiles of bottled water, hard dry biscuits and blankets for the 400 staff and people living in areas surrounding the plant, which is around 45 times the size of a football field.
In addition, buildings already had top-floor rooftop evacuation sites and the plant’s machinery and fittings were fixed so as to lessen injuries and damage.
The disaster plan was based on a hypothetical magnitude 6.0 earthquake, meaning that it faced a major challenge in 2011. Nor did it foresee a massive tsunami with an unprecedented amount of damage.
When the earthquake struck, waves 7.6 metres high reached the nearby Sendai Port, subsequently flooding the brewery.
Fortunately, the emergency drills paid off and all staff, visitors and neighbourhood residents were safely evacuated.
On the business side, it was different. Products and equipment floated out of the factory premises. “The tsunami washed up approximately 70 million cans,” Mr. Noriya Yokota, the Executive Officer of Kirin’s Production and Quality Control Department, told participants in a study tour organized for delegates at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
All stored beer had to be disposed of due to a lack of temperature control.
The disaster forced the plant to be closed temporarily. Business resumed, albeit only partially, in November 2011 when the company held a ceremony to mark its first post-disaster shipment.
“It took us about one year to complete the restoration of the brewery,” added Mr. Yokota, who said the operation cost about six billion yen (US$50 million). Without the disaster resilience plan it would have taken far longer.
Like Japanese authorities, other businesses and the wider population, the brewery has drawn lessons from the 2011 disaster.
“We have strengthened our disaster preparedness level in case another tsunami strikes,” said Mr. Yokota.
New preparedness measures include structural adjustments to defend the site against tsunami waves measuring 7.6 metres at low tide and 8.8 metres at high tide. Hand rails have been installed to secure the top floor evacuation sites and a broadcast facility set up.
In addition, emergency stockpiles have been increased, with enough food for 700 evacuees to eat twice – they only had one meal in 2011. Other current supplies include food, water, lighting, power generators, fuel, blankets and televisions.
An earthquake notification system that can detect primary waves and promptly activate an alarm system has also been installed. Backup generators that will operate in case of a power outage are in place to keep communication lines open.
“Our priority is to save human lives by all means,” said Mr. Yokota.