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Japan tsunami gives lessons on disaster management
by Staff Writers
Sendai, Japan (AFP) Oct 9, 2012

The experiences of survivors of the massive quake and tsunami that smashed into Japan last year were being mined Tuesday at an international meeting on disaster management.

Pre-emptive measures to reduce damage and save lives when natural disaster strikes were top of the agenda at the two-day conference, part of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Organisers picked Sendai because it is the capital of a region that lost nearly 19,000 people when the massive waves of March 2011 rolled ashore, crushing whole communities.

"I hope to share with people in the world our country's experiences from the disaster," Japan's reconstruction minister Tatsuo Hirano told delegates.

He said even a country as well-prepared as Japan could not disaster-proof itself.

"There is no such word as 'absolute' in disaster prevention terms," Hirano said, noting a tsunami warning system that had worked well for years focusing on speed rather than accuracy had failed.

"The tsunami warning predicted the height of the tsunami as three metres, but the actual tsunami measured nearly 20 metres in some places, easily overcoming defences," he said.

"We have to learn how to react to situations beyond our expectations."

Hirano said disaster-evacuation planning had largely been carried out by men, which meant "many women faced difficulties living in emergency shelters because there had been little input from women".

Sendai mayor Emiko Okuyama told the conference urban areas had proved unexpectedly vulnerable.

She said the greater-than-expected concentration of people in cities -- tourists and commuters unable to return home -- had also strained the system.

World Bank vice president and treasurer Madelyn Antoncic said "some countries are reluctant" to spend on preventative measures, but insisted it was worth the money.

On Wednesday, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim will visit disaster-hit areas before wrapping up the conference.

The Sendai talks are expected to feed into the communique to be issued on Saturday at the meeting of the Development Committee, the highest Fund and Bank joint decision-making body, said Kazushige Taniguchi, the World Bank's special representative to Japan, before the meeting.

Last week Japan and the World Bank released a joint study aimed at sharing experiences from last year, when a 9.0-magnitude quake and resulting tsunami crushed the coast and triggered the worst nuclear crisis in a generation.

But many of the recommendations the report makes are ongoing challenges for Japan, where 329,000 people are still living in temporary homes nearly 19 months later.

On the ground in Sendai, one woman who lost a relative and her house in the tsunami said she could understand why Japan was hosting a conference on reconstruction, but normality still seemed a long way off.

"I feel like our community is far from being reconstructed," said the 58-year-old, who did not want to give her name for fear of angering local officials.

"The support measures (the authorities) offer are too little, so we constantly worry about our future," the woman told AFP.

The government has announced plans to build new houses in upland areas and to offer cash handouts to partially finance housing loans.

The disaster left 18,684 people dead or missing and sparked reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on the coast.


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