Magazine article Risk Management

Dealing with Disaster: The Recovery in Kobe

Magazine article Risk Management

Dealing with Disaster: The Recovery in Kobe

Article excerpt

On January 17, 1995, the Hyogo-ken Nambu earthquake shook Kobe, Japan, causing a tremendous loss of life and property, including extensive damage to the city's transportation and port infrastructure. The cost to the city was high--5,500 lives, 350,000 injuries, 300,000 left homeless and more than 180,000 buildings destroyed, costing over $147 billion to date in direct damages. One year later, surveys of the rebuilding effort show a remarkable recovery and an admirable pace of reconstruction by this modern industrial port city.


Many of the commercial buildings in the primary business district of Chuo-ward were severely damaged in the earthquake and have been demolished, leaving vacant lots of land. It is important to note that most of these damaged buildings were built before 1981, when Japan's current building codes, considered to be among the world's best, became effective. Researchers have also determined that many buildings in Kobe were constructed on artificial or land-filled areas, making them prone to shifting or collapse during an earthquake.

Some commercial buildings were salvageable and are in various stages of repair. Interestingly, the upper floors have been removed from some prominent buildings that suffered a mid-story collapse while the undamaged lower stories have been put back into service. Such buildings include the old City Hall and the Santica Shopping Center, both of which are now in operation.

Buildings in the residential areas of Nagata-ward vary greatly in their degree of restoration. The design of many traditional homes, using beams and posts rooted in soft soil, contributed to the level of damage. The collapse of these types of homes was among the largest cause of death in the earthquake. Replacements for homes that were damaged irreparably are built with Western-style wood-frame construction or steel-frame designs. In other instances. the walls of houses have been strengthened with plywood. Many buildings have been left unrepaired and unoccupied, perhaps because of homeowners' financial difficulties (largely due to uninsured losses).

Of eight major transportation routes that ran through Kobe, only one remained operational. The Hanshin and Wangan expressways, two important passageways, sustained major damage. Within a particularly bad stretch of the Hanshin is an overturned portion of the highway still under reconstruction. The original concrete deck is being replaced with steel, and the columns have been replaced with ones made of stronger materials. Other segments of the Hanshin are undergoing retrofit or complete replacement. Ironically, the seismic vulnerability of the elevated Hanshin Expressway was well known to Japanese engineers, who reportedly were planning for an upgrade before the earthquake occurred. In February. 1996, one segment was reopened to traffic and full restoration is expected by fall of this year. In the meantime, residents adapt by using bicycles and motorbikes to get around.

The narrow streets of Kobe were rendered impassable by debris from collapsed buildings. Today, traffic on many of Kobe's streets has not returned to normal because of the unavailability of the Hanshin Expressway. Work is in progress on another elevated road, but elsewhere in Kobe, restoration of the surface road system appears to be nearly complete.

A New Day

The speed of restoration of Kobe's infrastructure is impressive, especially when compared to recovery efforts for freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area that are still incomplete seven years after the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. This comparison reflects a different set of priorities between Kobe and San Francisco: It appears that Kobe primarily has focused on infrastructure while San Francisco cared for the population's housing needs first.

The recovery of the rail service has been impressive. Running in or through Kobe are the Shinkansen (the bullet train), the JR (Japan Railways) line, the municipal subway, Portliner and Rokkoliner (elevated light rail lines connecting central Kobe to two artificial harbor islands), and the Hankyu and Hanshin private lines. …

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