Lessons from Kobe

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If Kobe is any guide, here's what Taiwan can expect in the months ahead: buildings, roads and bridges will be repaired, no problem, but the emotional damage will linger for years. It was easier to rebuild bridges than to repair souls, says Hiroko Kuroda, 48, a nurse who has been working with quake victims in the Japanese port city since it was struck on Jan. 17, 1995. Social workers say alcoholism, divorce, unemployment, depression and suicide are all on the rise in the city, where one-fifth of the population was left homeless, at least temporarily. The community fell apart with the earthquake, says Kuroda. Lives were unsettled long after the aftershocks ceased, as people were moved first to shelters, then to apartments far from their homes and separated from their old neighbors. The bridges, railway lines, schools and 46,000 other destroyed buildings were repaired or rebuilt in a $90 billion public-works project completed with dizzying speed. It wasn't without controversy. City officials pushed lofty projects designed to reinvent Kobe: a new airport, new suburbs, an inner-city renewal plan. Kobe saw this as an opportunity to build a glamorous new city, says Yosuke Hirayama, an urban planning professor at Kobe University. But they forgot about the individuals who were hurting.

Without warning, the earth moved under Taiwan, triggering the island's worst natural disaster in 64 years. Political aftershocks will be felt locally--and in China

Kobe offers other valuable lessons for quake-prone cities. Japan discovered it wasn't nearly as prepared to handle a disaster as it had believed. This is a country where earthquakes are common, drills are held annually in schools and people can visit simulation rooms to experience a virtual quake. But when the earth shook for real in Kobe, Japan stood still. Rescue teams were slow, there wasn't enough equipment to dig through demolished houses to find survivors and there was no water to fight fires that followed the quake. It was a wake-up call to us all, says Kazuo Ikawa, director of the city's safety bureau. Some changes have been made to help the next time. Kobe and Tokyo have equipment to pump water from their bays; politicians snipped some red tape that caused delays in sending out the self-defense forces to disaster areas; mechanisms for managing volunteer workers have been put into place. Kobe erected towers with radio speakers to communicate with residents.

Perhaps the most positive change in Kobe has been one of attitude. A spirit of community involvement that emerged in the days and weeks after the earthquake has endured. Residents protested by the hundreds when the city tried to ram through an urban renewal plan a scant two months after the quake. Their opposition forced the government to let residents have a say in how their neighborhoods would be rebuilt. People had a paternalistic view of their government before, says Shigeo Tatsuki, a professor of social work at Kwansei Gakuin University. Now there is a sense of civic-mindedness, that people themselves are responsible for their own fate.