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Public Roads - May/June 2012

May/June 2012
Issue No:
Vol. 75 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Learning From Japan's Ordeal

by Hideo Tokuyama

A colleague across the Pacific has quite a story to tell about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami -- and some valuable tips for U.S. transportation agencies.

After the earthquakes shook the east coast of Japan, this massive tsunami overwhelmed the coastal levee in downtown Miyako City in Iwate Prefecture.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake shook the east coast of Japan. Three additional upheavals, each about 7.0 magnitude, followed within 40 minutes in a broad area extending 311 miles (500 kilometers) north-south and 124 miles (200 kilometers) east-west.

One of the most significant characteristics of the event, known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, was the series of aftershocks, which triggered a massive tsunami along the Pacific coastline of eastern Japan. In particular, high surges of 33-66 feet (10-20 meters) caused catastrophic damage in cities in the Tohoku (northeastern) region of the country.

Typically during a disaster, Japan's road administrators implement temporary recovery work in the short term and then permanently restore roads to predisaster conditions. In the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, however, the massive tsunami deposited huge amounts of debris in the downtown areas, requiring road clearing to open rescue routes. In addition, because of the extensive region that suffered damage, the branch offices of the national government needed to directly support the local governments and the affected population. Normally, prefectural governments support the local governments, but the scale of this disaster required the national government's direct support. Although these two factors were unprecedented for Japan's transportation officials, strategic emergency planning upfront combined with creative problem solving during the crisis helped the country orchestrate a successful response to this latest disaster.

The largest circle indicates the location of the main earthquake, and the other circles show the locations of the aftershocks, with their date, times, and magnitudes.

Immediate Response

Due to its age, the office building of the Tohoku Regional Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) did not survive the seismic motion. A number of cracks in the walls and other types of structural damage made the building unusable. Nevertheless, the Tohoku Bureau's disaster operations center, which had been rebuilt 6 years earlier in a separate earthquake-resistant building, remained intact.

In the disaster operations center, a power generator activates automatically upon a blackout. The Tohoku Bureau also had stockpiled supplies of fuel, food, and water sufficient for 3 days. After the disaster, the use of groundwater, pumped by the generator, to operate the center's toilet facilities prevented sanitation issues.

As for communications, the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami interrupted commercial services (land lines and cell phones) over a wide area. However, MLIT's dedicated microwave systems remained effective for communicating with all of the Tohoku Bureau's 42 highway, river, dam, and port offices and 110 branch offices located in Tohoku's six prefectures. (Altogether, Japan has 47 prefectures, ranging in size from the prefecture of Tokyo to large rural regions.) None of the Tohoku Bureau's offices were cut off from the dedicated microwave systems.

In addition, the bureau had installed 1,880 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras throughout the region for monitoring highways and rivers. Transportation professionals in the disaster operations center were able to view live video feeds from those cameras, although a small number failed to continue operating due to damaged fiber-optic cables and other types of failures caused by the tsunami.

This massive tsunami struck houses in downtown Miyako City in Iwate Prefecture, causing catastrophic damage.

Previously, the Tohoku Bureau had equipped a helicopter at Sendai Airport for monitoring damages in the event of a disaster. Immediately after the earthquake, the Tohoku Bureau ordered designated staff members of the airline company to take off without waiting for anyone from the Tohoku Bureau to join them.

The flight went airborne 37 minutes after the earthquake, right before the tsunami struck the Sendai Airport. This flight provided immediate visuals of a broad area, enabling the Tohoku Bureau to know, within a few hours, the scope and extent of damage from the tsunami.

Junko Kumagai, director of the Disaster Prevention Division of the Tohoku Bureau, initiated the flight. She says, "I instinctively knew that every minute mattered because of the intense seismic movement, and I suggested mobilizing the helicopter. I thought that waiting 1 hour for our staff to reach the airport would be wasting critical time. The designated persons of the airline had been trained to fly without our staff. This training turned out to be very effective at the time of the disaster."

The Tohoku Bureau's disaster operations center, shown here receiving video feeds on the night of March 11, 2011, remained intact.

First Night After the Quake

The first night after the disaster, Minister Akihiro Ohata of MLIT and other executive officials held a series of videoconferences with the Tohoku Bureau, starting 7 hours after the main earthquake. During the meetings, the Tohoku Bureau reported on the situation and offered suggestions on how to proceed.

First, the bureau recommended that any measures implemented take into account that the damage from this disaster was different from that sustained during the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, which had caused structures to collapse. In the 2011 disaster, on the other hand, the tsunami had caused most of the damage, primarily in city downtowns along the Pacific coastline.

Another of the bureau's suggestions was to make providing support for local governments a top priority, along with clearing and reopening critical roads and ports in order to establish rescue routes as quickly as possible. The MLIT minister directed the Tohoku Bureau to concentrate first on saving people's lives and focus on restoration later. The minister also emphasized that the director general of the Tohoku Bureau represented the national government and was authorized to do whatever was required to help the affected region.

The assumptions underlying the initial response measures were that the most devastated areas would be along the Pacific coastline and that the bureau should anticipate the worst when taking action. On the first night after the disaster, the director general ordered that the following three actions were to be the top priorities.

Collect information. The bureau borrowed three helicopters from the other regional bureaus by the following morning and established an organizational system to assess the full extent of the damage. To collect information about the damage, the bureau immediately sent personnel to Tohoku's four prefectures that face the Pacific Ocean: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima.

Establish routes for rescue and the transport of supplies. The swift opening of rescue routes was critical because tens of thousands of people in the Pacific coastal region were at high risk. On the morning following the earthquake and tsunami, the bureau mobilized the area's construction companies and their equipment, based on prior agreements with the local industry in the event of a disaster. The bureau organized 52 teams for the road-clearing operation, each consisting of 10 operators with their equipment.

Support the prefectural and local governments. In addition to sending personnel to the four affected prefectures to collect information, the bureau directed additional staff to prepare to go in the following days to the localities with catastrophic damage to assist the local mayors. The bureau selected staff members from offices located inland or on the Japan Sea coastline, which had less damage. The most qualified members were selected to solve the urgent needs of the local mayors.

This helicopter took off only 37 minutes after the earthquake, right before the tsunami struck the airport. The flight enabled the Tohoku Bureau to know within a few hours the scope and extent of damage in the Sanriku coastal area.

Operation Comb

On the day of the disaster, a severe tsunami warning remained in effect all day, making any rescue by sea impossible. By evening, however, the largest arterial roads that run north-south -- national highway 4 and the Tohoku expressway -- were reported to be passable. Based on that report, the bureau initiated "Operation Comb," so-called because the emergency network of rescue routes to the coast resembled a comb. Roads selected to be cleared and opened were national highway 4 and the Tohoku expressway (both are north-south inland routes) and 16 east-west roads that connected to the north-south routes.

The tsunami carried with it a vast quantity of debris, including houses, vehicles, and wood and metal materials, as well as the bodies of victims. The sensitivity of the situation required careful operations in cooperation with Japan's Self Defense Forces and police. Because a number of intense aftershocks were still shaking the country, the lives of the road-clearing teams were also in danger.

Itaru Suzuki, manager of the Miyako Maintenance Branch Office of the Tohoku Bureau's Sanriku National Highway Office, participated in the road-clearing operation in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture. He says, "Another tsunami was possible along the coastline at the time of Operation Comb, so I understood the danger of participation. But I also understood the possibility of secondary damage to those who were in need of medical attention. After careful discussions with the construction workers, we decided to start the road-clearing operation."

The Tohoku Bureau's staff had been trained in how to handle closures of national highways and flood gates following the issuance of a tsunami warning. The members of the Operation Comb teams, however, executed tasks very different from those they had prepared for, and did so with a strong sense of responsibility and without putting their own safety, or the safety of their families, ahead of others.

In a videoconference with Minister Ohata, staff from the Tohoku Bureau is shown here reporting on the situation and making recommendations.

Seismic Standards For Structures

By the following day, the bureau had opened 11 routes, and a total of 15 by March 15, except in the evacuated area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This swift road-clearing operation to create rescue routes enabled the support activities to expand, utilizing ports on the Japan Sea and routes from other areas in the Tohoku region. After the 15 routes were opened, the gross goods movement at the Port of Sakata along the Japan Sea had increased by 50 percent, and traffic volume had more than doubled on national highway 113, which extends between the coastlines of the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

What facilitated the efficiency of the road clearing was, first, the fact that none of the existing bridges on the selected roads had collapsed as a result of the quake. The bridges held because MLIT had applied lessons learned from the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake 17 years earlier in 1995. That earthquake had caused an expressway viaduct to collapse, so MLIT had revised the design standards for road bridges to ensure resistance to seismic motion of a similar severity. As a result of the 1995 experience, MLIT had expedited measures to retrofit the bridges on critical roads accordingly. Bridge piers had been reinforced and superstructures and piers had been tied together. The objective was to prevent collapses and to allow those roads to be used as rescue routes after an earthquake.

On March 12, the Tohoku Bureau initiated "Operation Comb" to clear rescue routes to reach the affected coastal areas. The operation mobilized 52 roadclearing teams to open 16 east-west roads connected to two key northsouth inland routes.

Although the tsunami washed away a few bridges on roads in the coastal areas, no critical damage to structures occurred in the areas where the tsunami did not reach, despite seismic motion with high ground accelerations. The impact of the medium- to long-period components of the seismic motion did not exceed the assumptions of the revised seismic standards. To illustrate the effectiveness of the post-Hanshin-Awaji measures, by comparison, 20 of the locally administered bridges had collapsed or were critically damaged during that quake because the seismic measures had not yet been implemented on those local roads.

The second reason for the success is that MLIT had carefully focused on 16 routes to be opened by Operation Comb, rather than spreading the efforts in a more scattershot way.

Third, MLIT took advantage of the agreements that the Tohoku Bureau had signed earlier with local construction companies to provide emergency support in the event of future disasters. The agreements enabled the local companies to work swiftly to clear and open the road infrastructure.

The ports in the affected areas had been expected to function as critical transport facilities in the event of a disaster, but the massive amount of debris compromised this function. With efforts focused on debris removal, all 10 ports on the Pacific were back in operation to accommodate emergency goods by March 23.

The tsunami carried large quantities of debris and the bodies of its victims. Here, debris has been partially cleared off a road in Iwate Prefecture.

In addition, when the Sendai Airport shut down because of the flood and debris, MLIT deployed its own drainage pump vehicles, normally used for river floods, from all over Japan. Water drained from the airport was equal to the volume of 14,000 swimming pools, each 25 meters (82 feet) in length. On April 13, the airport began operating six special passenger flights per day.

"Operation Tomodachi" (Operation Friends) accelerated the fast recovery. This operation, a collaboration among the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army, mobilized the 20,000 U.S. soldiers available in the Pacific region to assist Japan's affected areas and search for missing persons. The first U.S. military transports landed at the airport upon its reopening on March 16.

This rapid airport opening would have been impossible without the generous support of the U.S. Forces and U.S. citizens.

The road-clearing teams provided satellite communications equipment to the affected localities, enabling the Tohoku Bureau to communicate with the mayors.

Emergency Support To the Localities

After the earthquake, the minister sent eight members of MLIT's Technical Emergency Control Force, TEC-FORCE, from the other regional bureaus to the affected region to help mitigate the damage. TEC-FORCE members have the same duties as other MLIT staff, but they also can be called on in the event of a disaster to assess damage and provide localities with technical assistance. This system enables TEC-FORCE members from all over Japan to gain experience in mitigating catastrophic disasters.

By March 13, more than 200 TEC-FORCE members reported to the Tohoku Bureau to initiate investigation and mitigation efforts.

The Tohoku Bureau equipped each of the road-clearing teams with rechargeable satellite phones, and the teams distributed the phones to the affected local governments. Later, other regional bureaus mobilized vehicles outfitted for satellite communications and disaster operations functions.

At the peak of the response, the regional bureaus deployed 192 disaster operations vehicles with operators, including TEC-FORCE members, to the affected localities. This provision of communications equipment enabled the Tohoku Bureau to converse with the local mayors, who otherwise had no way to be contacted. Such equipment distribution by the national government to local governments is not uncommon in Japan.

The day after the disaster, the Tohoku Bureau assigned some of its members as liaisons to the affected localities. Later, TEC-FORCE members joined the support efforts in 31 localities, especially on the Pacific coastline from Iwate to Fukushima prefectures. At the peak of the response, the bureau and TEC-FORCE provided 96 liaisons to assist the localities. In Japan, the scale of this human resource assistance for disaster management was unprecedented.

Responding to the needs of the mayors, the liaisons procured temporary housing (some used as local government offices), temporary toilets, tents to house victims' bodies, coffins, fuel, food, daily necessities, and sanitary goods.

Prior to the disaster, this type of procurement had not been among the responsibilities of MLIT's staff. By March 31, affected communities had made 218 procurement requests. Within 3 days, MLIT had shipped goods in response to 90 percent of those requests.

The liaisons also implemented various activities such as coordination, negotiation, and interpretation of legal matters with other ministries, prefectural agencies, the Self Defense Forces, and the private sector. Such assistance was needed, for example, to coordinate the disassembling of a huge fuel tank that the tsunami had washed ashore from a port into a downtown, and to coordinate the recovery of power supplies to the waste facilities so that debris could be burned.

The mayors who received the assistance expressed their appreciation by saying that the liaisons were more than contact persons and that they became the right hands of the mayors and the core of the recovery activities.

Regional bureaus outside the tsunami-affected areas provided these vehicles equipped with satellite communications equipment.

Lessons Learned from The Initial Response

Many aspects of MLIT's initial response to this disaster can serve as lessons for the future.

Unified organization and mission. The videoconferences with the minister and MLIT officials facilitated the establishment of a structurally flat chain of command with accurate information sharing between the central office and branch offices. This structure and information sharing made it possible to implement the initial responses immediately.

Responding to the needs of the affected localities, the Tohoku Bureau procured various relief-related facilities and daily necessities, such as the temporary housing (above) and portable toilets (below) shown here.

Securing of communications systems. MLIT's dedicated microwave systems, communications equipment, and facilities such as the emergency center allowed for flexible operations. These systems and equipment enabled the bureau to function successfully as a disaster management organization.

The number of vehicles and drivers, however, was insufficient for investigating all of the affected areas immediately after the disaster. Also, due to the tsunami, some fiber-optic cables connecting the Tohoku Bureau and affected areas were damaged and failed to provide real-time video feeds. Reinforcement of those cables was needed to secure visual information.

Collaboration with related organizations. MLIT was successful in establishing strong networks with various organizations, including the prefectural and local governments, Self Defense Forces, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Central Nippon Expressway Company. All of these organizations were supportive, enabling initial measures to be taken quickly. Strong ties with mayors were critical in accurately understanding the immediate needs of affected populations.

Nationwide organization. As a division of the national government, MLIT was in the most advantageous position to mobilize resources from around the country and to implement effective measures swiftly. After the disaster, other regional bureaus from around the country mobilized TEC-FORCE, with its specialized knowledge, disaster operations vehicles and drivers, equipment, and liaisons. MLIT sent TEC-FORCE members to some 30 affected localities.

Bridge retrofit. Based on the lessons learned from the bridge damage in the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, MLIT had revised the bridge seismic design standards and implemented reinforcement measures on existing bridges. The revisions and reinforcements functioned effectively against the seismic motion during the Great East Japan Earthquake and contributed to the mitigation of significant damage to the bridges. Therefore, MLIT could launch Operation Comb to swiftly clear and open the road network for relief efforts and emergency transportation to the affected areas.

Collaboration with the private sector. The private sector provided critical assistance, such as road clearing by construction workers despite the threat of additional tsunamis from the aftershocks. "When night fell, I stopped the road-clearing work and told the workers that they might be risking their lives to continue the work, and we would not know what to expect," says Hiroya Ueno of Kariya Construction Co. "I let them know that I would appreciate their showing up on the next day for Miyako. It brought tears to my eyes to see that all the workers were back the following morning."

Overall, this lesson emerged from this disaster: Measures prepared and put in place in advance proved to be the most effective.

Final Word

Accumulated debris in the downtown of Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture, and a damaged arterial (national highway 45) virtually isolated the community from rescue efforts. However, the Kamaishi-Yamada Road which runs through the community, had opened just 6 days prior to the earthquake, enabling 570 students from the elementary and junior high schools to evacuate to the expressway on the day of the disaster. After the evacuation, passing vehicles transported the students to safety. The expressway had been designed and routed to avoid potential tsunamis; therefore, it was free of damage and served effectively as an evacuation and rescue route for the community.

The road networks along and from the Japan Sea coastline inward functioned effectively as the rescue routes leading into the affected areas on the Pacific coast. The lesson is that the development of an alternative network is strongly needed, with well-planned priorities, to be prepared for possible disasters.

Students and teachers flee the tsunami to the newly constructed Kamaishi-Yamada Road. The road saved their lives. Also shown is a map of the region.

MLIT learned many lessons from this disaster. The Tohoku Bureau is going to review those lessons in its disaster prevention plans and other related policies. By reflecting on the lessons learned, the bureau hopes to determine measures to mitigate future possible damage in the Tohoku region, which has repeatedly endured catastrophic disasters.

Construction of this temporary bridge to replace the Kesen Ohashi Bridge, washed away by the tsunami, was completed on July 10, 2011, 4 months after the earthquake.


Hideo Tokuyama, Ph.D., is the director general of the Tohoku Regional Bureau of MLIT. He is responsible for development and management of infrastructure, including highways, bridges, river facilities, and ports in the region. He began his career in the Ministry of Construction (MLIT's predecessor) in 1979 after graduating with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Tokyo. He received his Ph.D. in engineering (performance management) from the University of Tokyo in 2004. From 1996 to 1997, he was assigned to the Federal Highway Administration as the first Japanese International Research Fellow, strengthening the U.S.-Japan collaboration in highway engineering, including intelligent transportation systems.

Dr. Tokuyama would like to express his "deepest appreciation to the government and people of the United States for their generous and warm support, including Operation Tomodachi. Intensive efforts continue for the recovery of the affected areas. MLIT is going to do its best to accelerate and complete this recovery."

For more information, see or contact Ryoichi Watanabe at 202-493-3132 or