Typhoon Hagibis : Oct. 12, 2019

So I wanted to study disaster…

The worst “Super Typhoon” in 60 years to hit Japan came barreling in last night around 7pm. Tokyo was in the direct-hit path of the center of the storm. It was classified as a Category 4 Hurricane when it made landfall with winds up to 100mph gusting around 150mph. The water around Japan is unusually warm for this time of year which only lent power to the pressure system, and tides were especially high because of the full moon. Water in the Tokyo Bay had risen by about a foot, before factoring in storm surges and wave swell.

Right now there is an influx of tourists in Japan for the Rugby World Cup. Getting information out to foreigners in a country where they are unfamiliar with the preparations or standard protocol in these storms is really difficult. The Japanese government has had decades of fine tuning a system of response and how to conduct orders and information dispersal in a disaster. And they did an amazing job, even considering how to provide access to this information if phone lines and internet were to go down. There was a free WiFi service under 00000Japan that anyone in the disaster area could hook up to to. This ensured that loved ones could be alerted in emergency, and access to governmental information would continue. Every few hours an alert would come through to all smart phones (in Japanese but nothing Google Translate couldn’t fix). Signing up for the local city email disaster notification system allowed up-to-date information and evacuation notices to come through. There is also a twitter account, and frequent news updates to allow for all means of information communication. Every twenty minutes last night I would reload the Japanese Alert site to check real-time maps of flooding, landslides and to track the storm. There was also a flood map and evacuation center information send out by each individual city. Examples from my city below:

Flood Hazard Map

Landslide Hazard Map

Disaster Survival PDF

Evacuation Center Map

This information was so vital in helping to ease my fear in the middle of the storm. I was one of 6 million people advised to evacuate. Receiving a Level 4 Evacuation warning to my phone sent me into a panic of not knowing where to go or what to do. This was in the middle of the storm when it was incredibly dangerous to go outside. I had to grapple with the decision to risk my life to get to a potentially safe place, or stay put and keep tracking the informational maps and make decisions based on how that evolved. I knew I was on the third floor in my apartment building so high enough in case of a flood, except for the fact that I’m also only two blocks from one of the biggest rivers in Tokyo. And I was only a little familiar with the history of that rivers flooding. I knew the government had conducted a large excavation effort to deepen the river banks in the last decade. I knew that every time I walk by it the water was only a few inches deep. But I also had no idea how that would change over 72 hours and over 30 inches of rain.

I was very scared. This is what I wrote in the middle of it all, when I couldn’t focus on anything, was pacing around my apartment, having been on lock-down for about 20 hours:

“Just kind of existing right now. This minuscule entity in the middle of a larger living population at the mercy of the massive natural force bearing down on us. At times it feels very calm, the waiting. Like a tease maybe or a fire drill. But I’m pretty scared. The warnings are all in a different language. I don’t know enough to be able to make any judgments. I’m relying on the noise of my neighbors that I can hear upstairs and next door to make me feel a bit more secure. A bit less alone. I’m in the belly of the dragon now. I know enough to understand the high structural integrity of my building, so feel safe enough here. I’m not worried about the wind. It’s the flooding and landslides I’m scared of. I’m so close to the river. But its ok now. With internet, power and WiFi everything still seems ok. I have a go-bag ready but can retain a sense of normal rain hibernation, not an end of the world hibernation. The storm is still 6 hours away though.”

Experiencing the storm firsthand has become vital to the way that I can empathize with the disaster victims I want to help and design for. It’s hard to understand the fear and trauma that comes from a natural disaster. The waiting is the worst part. Waiting for what you assume will be the worst. The exhaustion that comes from that. And then to really lose everything? To feel the out of body sense that it cant be true. To lose your house or a loved one? The sheer unreality of that. The lack of control and powerlessness. It reaffirmed the inclusion of participatory design. When feeling so powerless, so uniformed, the only way to start to rebuild is to first gain that security of mind back. To feel like a real person again. Not just a minuscule entity, helpless in the face of something so large as a storm or as the rebuilding of your home.

The impact of this storm was drastically lessened by the preparation of the Japanese government. It shows how important the framework behind disaster recovery is and is powerfully important on the prevention side. Typhoon Hagibis was on track to equal the Kanagawa Typhoon in 1958 that left 1,200 people dead. The most recent count, although still tragic, counted 11 people dead, 14 missing and 90 injured. With transportation shutting down 12 hours before the storm was supposed to hit, advisory warnings and all of the access to information, many more deaths and injuries were avoided.

Morgan Marzo