Seeing Typhoon Vera with Today’s Eyes
The collage of historical Internet images shows some of the main scenes of the terrible typhoon of September 20-26, 1959, named Vera (伊勢湾台風) and concentrating damage along Ise Bay and Nagoya: the storm path, extremely low atmospheric pressure (895 mbar), JSDF aid after 9/29, news cameraman, broken levees, food relief, and the flooding and destroyed property.
On the Wikipedia pages both for English and for Japanese the key numbers are given, with minor differences in number of reported dead (4,400 – 5,000), missing (about 400), injured (38,921), homeless (1.6 million) and the destruction to property (834,00 homes destroyed). As for the storm itself, the storm surge caused most damage and came on top of the day’s high tide in Nagoya. The Ise Bay reached 3.9 m above normal, causing flooding that took more than 4 months to subside in some places. Many buildings in the city were destroyed when a stockpile of timber floated away and rammed into structures.
Among Japan’s recorded natural disasters of the 20th century this one is 3rd worst, after the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji earthquake and the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. Ranked among the Pacific typhoons known by records since the late 1700s, for all of Asia this one is #10 for deaths (#1 is the 1881 Haiphong disaster with 300,000 dead). The 2013 Philippines typhoon Haiyan (ranked #9) had 6,340 deaths. With the massive disruption to lives and Japan’s economy, the national government had to make a supplementary spending budget. In 1960 they established September 1 each year as a national day of disaster preparedness (the calendar date of the 1923 Great Kanto quake, fire, and tsunami). And the lawmakers created the 1961 fundamental law for disaster response, the Saigai Taisaku Kihon Hou (災害対策基本法).
Looking back now with the benefit of modern machines, knowledge, communication and procedures, surely the damage and death could be much less. The history of disaster risk reduction has shown a sharp dropoff in severity of damage since the late 1950s when the risks were identified, precautions were put in place, populations were better prepared and responders were better practiced. Consulting businesses like ScienceCraft have guided cities and companies along the path to Business Continuity Management in recent decades, too. But thinking of the 1959 situation, and concentrating only on advances now in Emergency Management – how information is gathered, responsibilities divided, and direction is given for maximum coordination of effort and minimizing duplication or secondary harm created during the response –but still using the 1959 technology and residents’ level of awareness at the time, we can make a thought experiment and ask: what actions would be handled differently by the professionalized staff from a modern Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and what practical advantages might be seen, thanks to modern thinking.
Even without our modern telecommunications; computer processing power, multiple displays and printing; rugged vehicles, satellite data and mapping, and airpower, still our modern system for managing emergencies has grown stronger over the years since 1959. With the current way of observing, analyzing, and responding there comes different attitudes compared to then. In hindsight there were a few main causes for the slow and weak responses.
The strength of the storm was well known from air crews’ reports and the path was generally accurate, but the news media did not report the danger very sharply or very quickly. And most radios were not portable, battery-powered devices, so the loss of electricity also cut off broadcast channels to warn the residents. Thus communication failure of devices and the reporters’ news organizations led to much of the harm. A second problem was lack of preparedness: residents did not imagine the severity of winds, water, and secondary destruction from floating logs, lack of safe water to drink, food supplies, and evacuation spaces. Sea walls were too low or were not finished. Businesses and families had no emergency plans or practice to guide their responses.
Magically, if a team from a modern EOC could replace the 1959 leaders there are several things they would do differently. For the communication problem the EOC staff would work closely with news media to push the alert by broadcast or alarm system at the earliest opportunity, as soon as landfall was identified. And even when electricity was gone, the EOC staff would use visual or person to person methods to evacuate everybody. Compared to leaders in 1959, the modern EOC staff would seek out specific information to build a decision. Back in 1959 perhaps the information sources were viewed in a scattered way, rather than a part of a complete picture that the modern EOC calls the COP (Common Operating Picture).
The lack of preparedness among the businesses and residents of the three prefectures in Vera’s path, Mie, Aichi, and Gifu, would not be any better prepared if the modern EOC staff could replace the 1959 staff, but at least the 2017 staff would have the benefit of more knowledge of damage size, pace, secondary damage to expect, engineering characteristics, and lessons of landslide science. That well-structured, deeper knowledge base, and the reservoir of experience among the modern EOC staff would lead them to seek food and water sooner than the 1959 staff did. As a result of quicker action maybe fewer dysentery and tetanus cases would have resulted. And knowledge of the major harm that could be expected from the storm surge in the shallow bay would lead the modern EOC to request JSDF and US Military aid sooner than the 1959 staff did.
Finally, besides improving the communication and the quicker pace of responses and recovery actions, modern EOC staff communicate among the members continuously to coordinate actions, to document the processes, and to produce After Action Reports to gain more experience from the event. And while it never is fair to judge history from today’s standpoint, this thought exercise does highlight the evolution of today’s Standard of Practice when it comes to disaster response. In all these ways, the modern EOC organizational structure, the knowledge base, and the wisdom or attitudes of cooperation and timely response would yield fewer deaths and maybe less damage than did the 1959 efforts.