What Happens After a Model Pastoral City is Hit with Catastrophe?

By Natalie Yemenidjian

Editor's Note: Yemenidjian combined what she learned in Fukushima into a larger reflection on the needs of people in the aftermath of disaster. This is an analysis of one town’s disaster response.

Had it not been for the snow four days after the nuclear power plant failure, perhaps it would have been safe to return to Iitate, Fukushima three years later. And, perhaps its villagers would not have been among the most highly exposed to radiation.

But it did snow, cementing cesium-137 into the topsoil, making Iitate a designated no-go zone. It will take decades for the radioactivity to decay. Since forest occupies more than three-fourths of the village area, many families have let go of any hope to return.

Before the earthquake, Iitate had been a model “Madei life” city – meaning a pastoral village living in harmony with nature. Madei translates to respectfully and carefully.

In the aftermath of a power plant failure, evaluating a perimeter to evacuate is a priority to get people out of harm’s way. Getting the mayor of Iitate to evacuate proved to be difficult.

In just five days, a community-driven task force was created among local scientists, planners and villagers called the Iitate Village Support Team.

The group was lead by Koji Itonaga, a professor of architecture, engineering and city planning, who has worked in Iitate for 20 years. Their goal was to work with local government to keep track of radiation levels and determine whether it was safe to stay and most importantly to plead with the government to keep villagers together to create some semblance of normalcy.

In his research, Itonaga states “on the evening March 15, 2011 after the air radiation dose in front of the village office was measured at 44.7 microsieverts per hour, my colleagues and I urged Iitate’s mayor to hasten the evacuation of children and pregnant women.”

For comparison, a single chest x-ray delivers a dose of 50 to 100 microsieverts. Some villagers were evacuated, but by the end of March they had returned – after a team of radioactivity experts commissioned by the village authorities and led by Syunichi Yamashta, vice president of Nagasaki University and an expert on thyroid cancers associated with the Chernobyl accident advised that it was safe to do so.

It took a month and eleven days to get the local government to make evacuation orders, meaning that for a significant amount of time, the city’s residents were exposed to a high concentration of radiation.

It took a month and eleven days to get the local government to make evacuation orders, meaning that for a significant amount of time, the city’s residents were exposed to a high concentration of radiation.

The local government has had a history of strong community participation. In the early 1980s, a 20-year plan had been created for the future of the city to maintain the harmony between agriculture, pastoral scenery and the humans who lived there. The average household in Iitate was five people to each of the 1,700 homes.

Now, 50 percent of Iitate’s households have been separated. The task force asked that the city maintain this ideal community by keeping the villagers together; that the devastation of losing one’s household, way of life and in many cases family members was traumatic enough. They also asked that evacuation plans called for community togetherness in the future.

Communication between media and scientists was hazy as news of radiation risks broke, some reporters were misinformed or did not understand the difference between units of radiation. For future disaster recovery plans, transparency and dissemination of information are key to easing the collective minds of traumatized citizens.

The task force in Iitate, the Iitate Village Support Team, proposed 11 points in future disaster recovery of close-knit towns. In summary, the taskforce asked that villages maintain the “Madei” way of life and that they be rebuilt in safer areas with employment opportunities.

Future evacuation plans should include strategies for community rebuilding with village and town leaders as participants in the reconstruction process. Natural occurrences in informal housing and other alternative viewpoints can be used to empower resilient community design. And most importantly, local government is essential in informing the public at the time disaster strikes, and is at the heart of the rebuilding process.