journal, kesennuma, miyagi, network, temporary housing

an unexpected and excellent opportunity, Miyagi u and Higashi Matsushima

although the overall scheduling of this trip turned out a little different than I originally planned, it also turned out to be absolutely perfect. after 10 days with all hands in ofunato, I got to attend tedxtohoku in sendai before heading back to kansai (tedxtohoku was awesome, but i’ll get to that in the next post).

but before that, and thanks to the introduction of a very kind and well-connected friend in kobe, I had the chance to meet 2 great professors at miyagi U in sendai. and not only did they agree to meet me on friday…they then invited me to join them on saturday to visit temporary housing where they are working. I just wanted to say hello and maybe just ask a few questions about their post-disaster projects with students…and then there I was, tagging along for a whole day excursion that was super informative and eye opening, thought provoking. you get the idea.

T sensei and S sensei have been involved in a number of ongoing projects and collaborations to support communities and tsunami survivors. S sensei is involved mainly from the planning and community participation aspect, and in trying to get the voices of local residents heard in the recovery process and plans. he’s also working on establishing a network/center to support recovery planning, first in miyagi. based out of the university, up until now, he is already working with a team of 8 people, who are working in the affected communities to facilitate community-building and support other needs in the built environment. there’s a plan to scale up this program and hire more than 100 people, along with establishing a center that will coordinate the support of expert community planners. T sensei is more involved with the direct needs of temporary housing residents, and along with design students, implementing small projects that have a big impact on the living environment, like furniture and additions to the temporary housing, or the construction of a small building that serves as a community space for local fishermen.

T and S sensei both do a great deal of collaboration with other universities, organizations, and groups. you can tell they have been working hard continuously and tirelessly since the tsunami. tagging along with them, I feel the same way that I felt in jogja 2 months ago, witnessing the role of local academics who are taking the lead in supporting community recovery. it’s similar to what I witnessed at LSU after katrina, and what I imagine it was like at Kobe university after the quake, and in Niigata after the chuestu earthquake. in short–it’s local academics stepping up to support their local communities after disaster, using their knowledge of the local area and connection to networks outside to leverage support. as an academic, i think it’s the most important thing ever, and it also takes up a lot of time. and this is just the beginning–this process will go on for years, likely decades.

today’s tour is to temporary housing in Higashi Matsushima, near Ishinomaki. if you have been following the disaster relief efforts at all, you have heard of Ishinomaki, which has justifiably received a lot of attention based on the severe damage it suffered, and has been a base for a number of relief organizations and efforts. nearby Higashi Matsushima, on the other hand, is not as well known, although it was also seriously damaged. one reason for this is apparently because the city office isn’t as good at getting the word out, at publicity.

today at the temporary housing, there is construction going on. part of current ‘countermeasures against cold’–insulation is being added. since these temporary housing units were built of steel, they didn’t have any insulation in their original form. these are pre-fab, constructed by a pre-fab company.

Japanese national policy for post-disaster shelter is basically: 1. Evacuation shelter, 2. Temporary housing, 3. Recovery housing. Since the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, there have been some adaptations in this policy, especially in terms of 3., and the nature of financial support. But the basic fact of “2 step” housing (temporary housing, and THEN recovery housing) has not changed. Actually, the law does not stipulate that it has to happen this way, but basically that is what happens. the funding for temporary housing comes from the central government, and the local municipality is tasked with the construction of temporary housing–they can hire any construction company that they want to for the actual building work.

what this means currently is that there are vast differences in the temporary housing that is in use right now. there’s a range of scales, designs, forms, and quality. some are built by ‘house maker’ companies, who are in the business of pre-fab house construction (for new housing developments, not just after disaster); more are built by ‘pre-fab’ construction companies. now writing this, I realize I need to clarify it a little more. but my understanding is that the ‘pre-fab’ construction companies usually are not building houses (in non-disaster times); and are responsible for the lowest quality, least livable steel prefab structures currently used in tohoku, especially in miyagi prefecture.

there are also examples of better temporary housing: especially those constructed by wood (in Sumita cho, Rikuzentaka, and in large numbers in Fukushima prefecture), which are reusable, moveable, expandable, and more comfortable for inhabitants.

there’s also a huge range in scale, with some detached units, some small groups, and some massive sites (with hundreds of units).

in addition, there’s a large variety in the patterns by which residents entered the temporary housing, and their relationship to their former neighborhoods. some people are living in temporary housing near their former neighborhoods, and some communities have been collectively relocated, meaning they know their neighbors in temporary housing. however, nearby and/or collective relocation is by far the exception; due to lack of space nearby, and the widespread use of a lottery system to award temporary housing, many or likely most neighborhoods have been randomly scattered. this, I think, is the biggest failure to learn from the lessons of the Kobe earthquake.

during the visit to Higashi Matsushima, I learned that there is a vast difference in quality between temp. housing in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures: Iwate’s is much better. Miyagi prefecture had to construct many more units, and they were built more quickly. they were also constructed more poorly. I was shocked to hear about the gaps that were common–literal gaps between walls and roofs, of more than several inches! in Japan, where quality of construction is high, I can’t understand how this happens. I feel indignant anger on behalf of the people who have to live in these units. I’m reminded of Katrina survivors who were provided with FEMA trailers…that poisoned them with formaldehyde.

the fact that Miyagi prefecture is carrying out “coldness countermeasures”, by adding insulated walls to the outsides of the unites, and double paned windows, now, is….good, but also ridiculous that this comes as an addition instead of part of the original construction. it’s such a waste of money (and furthermore, these units will be thrown away after several years). and it’s not as if was that hard to predict that there will be a cold winter in tohoku.

I don’t know what exactly lead to the problems, but trying to build the units quickly may have been part of it. I also heard that the Miyagi elected officials don’t get involved, don’t visit the disaster area.

In addition to coldness countermeasures, one of the goals of the visit was to discuss how to carry out noise countermeasures, with collaboration between academics, local city staff, and non profits.
a student from Tohoku University of Science presented the previous work their group has done in temporary housing–which is ‘customization’ of units by making furniture, shelves, etc. it’s a really interesting and important work; and a good way for design students to get involved directly in a way that really impacts peoples’ lives. an interesting note is that whereas the idea was to make replicable designs, it turned out that most people wanted different things. it was also great to hear about how after the students started working on these projects, the residents started working with them, and in some cases were teaching students about how to make things! some folks from habitat for humanity were there, invited by the city office, to see if there is a way for habitat to be involved with this project (noise countermeasures) going forward. in addition to the professors, there were also several students, 1 member of the community facilitator staff, and a local architect.

this group of around a dozen people visited the housing, including chatting with a few residents about the issues they have with their houses. some things we heard about was a lack of shelves or places to put things, cold drafts, hard to use shower arrangements.

then there was a long discussion about how the noise countermeasures could be carried out. basically this means adding soundproofing material to the walls between units. currently, it’s easy to hear what happens next door, which will become more of a problem in the winter, as people are inside more often. especially children making noise, or tv, etc. but just the situation of not being able to have a private conversation in your own house that the neighbors can’t overhear is a really stressful living environment.

finally, we went to see a different temporary housing in Motoyoshi, an area of Kessenuma. there, a NPO called apsca has been supporting the residents with modifications to their houses, including tape for sealing drafts and covering areas where heat is lost (metal structures), and adding insulation to the windows (similar to bubble wrap–which is a common technique in japan, where regular houses are also often not insulated). a surpising coincidence-the leader of the non-profit had met my professor in Kobe before–in Sri Lanka!

in one day, I learned an incredible amount about the current situation on the ground, and how the local universities are supporting communities in the disaster area. I am incredibly inspired, filled with huge respect for what they are doing, and eager to see future progress. thank you!!

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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