Kobe remembers killer quake

Like hundreds of other people across the sleeping city of Kobe early on 17 January 1995, Heaok Kim thought it was a crashing aircraft that had hurled her out of bed.

    The quake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and took 6400 lives

    As a wardrobe, chair and television crashed to the

    floor around her, the 23-year-old teacher expected the roof to collapse on her at any second.

    "I was sure I was going to die. I looked up at the roof and I thought that it was about to come down but I

    couldn't do anything," she said. "The ground beneath me was just going up and down so violently that I

    coudn't stand. I was certain that I only had seconds to live."

    Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, what Japan knows today as the Great Hanshin Earthquake ceased.

    And while Kim survived, well over 6400 residents of Kobe, neighbouring Osaka and the prefecture of Hyogo

    died in the initial shockwave or the fires it triggered, or expired in the rubble of their homes before the rescue

    teams could reach them.

    Extra poignancy

    Monday's 10th anniversary of the most devastating earthquake to hit Japan for more than 70 years was

    always going to be a difficult day for residents of the city - even those who survived with families and friends

    all safe and well admit those few seconds changed their lives.

    But events in the Indian Ocean since 26

    December added an extra poignancy to this year's memorial services.

    Some 35,000 people were injured
    and up to 350,000 were displaced

    Measures that can be taken to avert a similar tragedy in the future have also been incorporated into the

    United Nations' four-day World Conference on Disaster Reduction, which opened in Kobe on 18 January.

    "I have been watching what happened in the countries affected by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and it

    has brought back the sense of devastation and complete chaos that we felt here in Kobe after the

    earthquake," Kazuko Sumino, a project director for the Kobe Cross-Cultural Centre, said.

    "It will take years for the people of those countries to begin to recover, judging by what has happened in

    Kobe," she said. "And, like us, they will never be able to forget."

    Smoke and flames

    Sumino was also asleep when the quake struck at 5.46am on the 17th. The inside of her house was a

    shambles, but at least it was still standing.

    The wooden houses of neighbours on both sides had been

    reduced to matchsticks, and the smoke and flames from vast fires triggered across the city were visible in

    several directions.

    "[The Indian Ocean tsunami]

    has brought back the sense of devastation and complete chaos that we felt here in Kobe after
    the

    earthquake"

    Kazuko Sumino,
    Project Director,
    Kobe Cross-Cultural Centre

    Well over 200,000 buildings were destroyed, 531 fires were reported, 35,000 people were injured and 300,000

    displaced.

    According to Unesco, reconstruction work cost about $140 billion, yet experts agree that had it

    struck an hour later, when more people were on the roads or in the streets, the toll would have been far

    higher.

    "I had to try to contact or find about 700 foreign students who were in Kobe at the time, living with families

    or in apartments," Sumino said.

    "There were no phone lines, the electricity was out and it took me more than

    three hours to make what is usually a 45-minute bus journey into central Kobe, even three days after the

    quake."

    Of the 700 people her organisation was responsible for, only one - a Chinese student - had been killed.

    Empty plots

    A decade later, the city is still not the place it once was, she believes.

    "It's terrible to see," Sumino says. "Visitors from the outside come and look around. They see the new buildings in

    the city centre and that the railway is running and the shops are operating and they say we have been very

    quick to recover.

    Japan sent doctors and provided
    generous aid to tsunami victims

    "But in the suburbs there are still empty plots where homes once stood but the people can't

    afford to build them again because they're still paying the mortgage on the house that burned down."

    In the aftermath of the quake - which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale - it quickly became apparent that

    the old and the young were having most difficulty coming to terms with what had happened.

    While children were unable to comprehend what they had lived through, and were reminded of its toll daily by

    empty seats in their classrooms, elderly people who lost their homes were also suddenly deprived of the

    community support system that is so widespread in Japanese society.

    Will to live

    When entire districts were burned down, residents were moved to temporary accommodation until more

    permanent apartments could be built by the local government.

    Living beside complete strangers in unfamiliar

    surroundings, many apparently just lost the will to live.

    "Physically, we're
    back to normal, but I can't say the same for the psychological
    well-being of all the people

    of the region"

    Kozo Arakawa,
    Hyogo Prefectural Government spokesman

    "Very soon I was dealing with people experiencing trauma, even though I was a survivor myself and had

    personal issues that I needed to deal with," Joanna Sato, a Polish-born psychologist who was living in Kobe,

    said. "There were a lot of people who needed help.

    "They were experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and fear of being exposed to further trauma,"

    she said.

    "I had clients who could not go on trains any more because the movement of the carriages reminded them of

    the shaking of the earthquake.

    Sato added: "When someone goes through a major loss, like losing a family member, there are clearly

    problems that they face in the aftermath, and that is very important to remember in the context of the

    tsunami disaster," she said.

    City rebuilt

    Although local governments in the region are keen to accentuate the positives since the earthquake,

    they too accept that the city and its people still has some way to go before it can put the disaster behind it.

    For many Kobe residents, the
    1995 quake was a life-changing

    "I think most buildings and infrastructure in the city centre have been rebuilt and the quality of life has

    recovered for most people, although the old, those who were injured or lost family members are still suffering

    mental problems," Kozo Arakawa, a spokesman for the Hyogo Prefectural Government, said.

    "Physically, we're back to normal, but I can't say the same for the psychological well-being of all the people

    of the region."

    The Japanese emperor and empress attended a memorial ceremony on Monday in Kobe, while dozens of other

    organisations - from support groups to associations of residents whose districts no longer exist - held their

    own memorials.

    At 5.46am, bells tolled across the city and residents lit candles to remember those who

    perished.

    Good opportunity

    "Of course, people who lost friends or relatives remembered that day with sorrow but I really get the feeling

    that the people of Kobe love this city and have been dedicated to rebuilding it for the last 10 years," Futoshi

    Yukakawa, a Hyogo government official, said.

    "I really get the feeling

    that the people of Kobe love this city and have been dedicated to rebuilding it for the
    last 10 years"

    Futoshi Yukakawa,
    Hyogo government official

    "People here are happy to work hard for the city and there has been a lot of discussion about the tsunami

    disaster and the UN conference. It's a good opportunity to talk about disasters of this sort so we can prepare

    for a better future."

    Kobe quake survivor Kim spent Monday with her family, marking a date that changed her life among those

    that she feared she might never see again.

    "I felt that death was very close for those seconds but it also made some things very clear in my mind," she

    said. "I didn't like my job, so I quit immediately, moved to London to study again and returned to Japan to

    work as a film-buyer. Before the earthquake, I was always planning to do something in the future; afterwards,

    I did things instead of just thinking about doing them."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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