Rebuilding After US and Japanese Disasters

Tale-of-two-storms-1024x440The earthquake and tsunami that struck the East Coast of Japan in 2011 killed nearly 20,000 people, displaced 500,000, caused $360 billion in economic damage and destroyed 138,000 buildings. It also created a large, coastal uninhabitable zone and left many shoreline residents unsure about rebuilding their residences and their lives.

Two-and-a-half years later, these issues still resonate. As the Brookings Institute reported, “The reconstruction challenges remain daunting for Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, the quality of the nuclear cleanup continues to raise concerns and the financial cost of rebuilding the Tohoku region is staggering.”

The Japanese government has pledged a massive, long-term reconstruction budget of $262 billion. But the question has to be asked: Given the frequency of devastating natural disasters in earthquake-prone regions of Japan, as well as the likelihood of a sea-level rise as a result of climate change, should population-intensive human settlements be rebuilt just as they were?

Scientists and other experts are questioning the wisdom of such policies. It was a topic at the May 2013 Wharton Global Forum in Tokyo, organized by the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) at Wharton, in a session titled “Risk, Challenges and Opportunities: Lessons Learned from 3/11.”

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Originally Published October 3, 2013