Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Michael Jennings writes:
I am not sure the scale and suffering of the disaster in the Kobe earthquake actually was greater than Hurricane Katrina. In fact I think that horrible as it was, that one was a much smaller disaster. The death toll in that case was around 5000, which while hideous seems clearly less than the final death toll from this disaster is going to be. And that disaster affected a relatively small area rather than the massively widespread devastation of this particular disaster. Sections of Kobe were indeed devastated, but Kobe is in fact one small part of a large metropolitan area, that also includes Osaka and Kyoto, and which contains perhaps 15 million people in total. In that context, there were lots of other police present nearby for the maintenance of law and order. (In truth I think the cultural factors are indeed different in Japan, but the kind of disaster was so dramatically different that it is not really a fair comparison).

However, the "There were lots of emergency services in Osaka nearby" factor should have helped the rescue operation after the earthquake also, but in fact the response in question was an absolute debacle. In that instance, huge amounts of bureaucracy got in the way, and the various emergency services were so busy having turf wars that it took a long time for them to do any rescuing. Volunteers were prevented from providing assistance. The armed forces took days to deploy.

What Kobe and New Orleans did have in common was woefully bad preparation for quite a predictable disaster. However, in Japan a lot of this was caused directly by bureaucracy. Japanese building codes were very strict for reasons that were explicitely "earthquake protection" but in truth were entirely about protectionism. The Japanese construction industry (along with the rice farmers) basically controls Japanese politics and the favoured powerful interests do not want to face competition, from abroad or from the less well connected in Japan. "Earthquake codes" that both force prices up and prevent competition were in their interests.

(That said, a good thing that did come out of this disaster was that this state of affairs was publicly exposed, and Japanese earthquake building codes are now largely about making buildings that will actually withstand earthquakes).