What Does Recovery Look Like?

The current recovery efforts in Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami draws many parallels to our post-Sandy conditions in the Northeast U.S., and should temper our expectations and help illuminate realities of our road ahead. Do they have the answers we seek?

By Illya Azaroff, AIA
September 26, 2014

Since Superstorm Sandy, many of us have been engaged in recovery one way or another, as an architect, engineer, community leader, or as a person directly affected by the storm. It has been two years of a seemingly endless stream of work, skill-building, and knowledge-sharing since the storm surge hit the Northeast Region of the United States. Whether engaged in actual buildings, study, or debate, we seem to be wrapped up in the broad and deep issues of climate change and associated learning that accompanies our new reality in the Northeast.

One truth we are faced with is that the tendency for today’s culture to move rapidly from one subject to the next, so, too, is our attention span for news. Our collective conscious does not stay focused for long on any one thing. The post-Sandy environment is no different. Many people have already moved on to the next „big thing,“ noting that our problems have been solved with the billions of federal dollars pumped into the region. So we are going to be fine. However, if you are living through the recovery process as a displaced person or business owner left wondering when the neighborhood will bounce back, your perspective is plainly different. In this case, you may be of the mind to ask: Why is recovery taking so long? Are we done with rebuilding yet? How long is this going to take? Another six months? A year? Come on, let’s wrap this thing and move on … where’s my bagel? I’ll have that light and sweet…taxi!

But that’s the thing. We have not heard in a clear concise manner the answer to two very important questions: 1) What does recovery look like? 2) How long will the recovery process take? Answer these, and the truth will set in motion certain freedoms for everyone.

To get at these questions, I recently went to Japan to take a look at the recovery efforts from the March 11, 2011, when the Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami claimed more than 18,000 lives and devastated coastal areas throughout northeastern Japan. Surely the most prepared country in the world with the third largest economy draws many parallels to our conditions in the Northeastern U.S. Do they have the answers we seek?

As of March 2014, three full years after the tsunami, 270,000 people across the region are still displaced, living in temporary housing. That is down from 370,000 people who were initially displaced. New coastal defenses and infrastructure, such as sea walls, are under construction, but clearly far from completion. Debris from the tsunami is still evident in many places. In port cities such as in Ishinomaki (pop. 160,000), the economy has not recovered as businesses struggle to find customers and viable space, where once vibrant neighborhoods existed.

Sound familiar? Does this resonate with parts of Brooklyn and Queens? Is the economic struggle similar to the New Jersey Shore? Well – yes, it does. But do the Japanese have answers that can help forecast our recovery timeline?

Sendai City


On my tour I had the pleasure of visiting with Sendai City Government officials, who welcomed me with open arms and open minds. Sendai City Planning, Recovery Operations, Temporary Housing Unit, and the Office of the Mayor gave me an entire day of their valuable time to review the damage to the city and surrounding region. I was given presentations on long-term planning, and toured temporary and newly-constructed housing, where I talked with the people living there. Sendai is a city of 1.1 million people and lies on the coastal zone hit hard by the tsunami. Thousands of buildings were washed away, many of which were very robust, reinforced-concrete structures built to withstand earthquakes. As a result of the tsunami the city government has rezoned the affected areas as non-residential coastal zones; if you own land and want to rebuild there, you simply cannot. The decision was to not rebuild in these areas of known risk, and relocate all former residents to new housing and constructed neighborhoods within Sendai City. In essence, up-zoning and increased density in the city is the plan for recovery and resilience.

When asked about the strategy, city officials reinforced that life safety, even a single life, trumps tradition, and that the public good is protected by not living in high-risk zones. Layers of new infrastructure and coastal protection are being built in these zones to further protect Sendai City itself, which will also provide public amenities, such as parks, transit systems, farm land, etc. The plan considers the next 100 years and beyond for Sendai and the surrounding towns.

Could and should the Northeastern U.S. do the same? Move tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of residents off of the barrier islands, out of known areas of risk? For better or worse? With politics as they are, not likely.

Infrastructure projects, such as 40- to 60-foot-high sea walls, lifting of entire communities, and relocation of entire neighborhoods and towns are in full swing. There is no fear of shaping the landscape at large scales to achieve their goals, such as taking down entire mountains to raise entire towns through cut-and-fill.

Large-scale reshaping of the landscape is evident everywhere you look. Are we in for similar circumstances, or do we have the stomach for such moves? To date, very little large-scale coastal protection has been put in motion in the Northeast U.S. Plans by Rebuild by Design and the Army Corp of Engineers are encouraging, but far from a final design solution – and even further from implementation. What we do see is sand replenishment, constructed dunes and berms, rip-rap, and similar beach protection that could not withstand a Sandy-like event on their own.

But, even with Japan’s robust building effort, expectation and reality rub up against one another. Residents who live in the coastal communities being reshaped by large infrastructure projects rely on the sea as a primary revenue generator, and their fundamental relationship with the sea is integral to their lives. Giant sea walls change that relationship in a way that most cannot accept. The fight over sea walls is in full swing – they are not simply taking away the view – they are changing how one can access the water.

Learning from recovery

Among the many areas where we can learn a great deal from the great eastern earthquake is the Japanese method of evacuation and relocation. All displaced families registered to live in temporary housing near former neighbors to help maintain community ties. In fact, everywhere I travelled the idea of community and well-being that stems from knowing your neighbor was central to preparation, mitigation, and recovery. These are not simply displaced people or families; these are displaced communities that will stay together at all cost. New housing projects I visited confirmed that „community“ remained the governing factor to resilience-planning all the way through to resettlement. When interviewed, residents in both temporary and new housing alike were happy and smiling about their circumstances, noting that they are alive and well, and, more importantly, among friends and neighbors.

Simply put, the answer to the question „What does recovery look like,“ from the Japanese perspective, is the point when „community“ is maintained or re-established. Is that what recovery looks like for New York and New Jersey? Or does our recovery hinge on jobs, restarting the economic engine, and revenue generation? In a recent presentation at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan, I asked Dan Zarrilli, director of the New York City Office of Recovery and Resilience, the same question, and his response was tied to economy and jobs. Not a bad answer, but it reveals a different approach to recovery and our current problems.

Now to the question: How long does recovery take? It depends on how you characterize “recovery.” If it is defined as community or economy, then we may have a difficult task ahead. If we take on only the physical state of recovery – buildings, infrastructure, and associated networks – as our measure, then we can plan a timeline tied to goals set forth. How long will any of the Rebuild by Design projects take, soup to nuts?

In Japan, the timeline was clear and often stated in the news and media by officials who project another eight to nine years to complete the region’s plans. That is a total of 12 years to execute comprehensive rebuilding of coastal protection measures, major infrastructure, and resettlement. Again, this is a country of means, better prepared for disaster and recovery, with fewer political boundaries and entanglements. In fact, the officials, engineers, and architects doing the work all echo the desire to move rapidly, as many of the displaced are part of Japan’s growing ageing population. To a person, they do not want anyone’s last days to be in temporary housing – a point stressed again and again by everyone with whom I spoke.

The correlation to New York and New Jersey is no different, and we need to hear from our public officials that recovery of this type will take a decade at least. That bitter pill needs to be administered and swallowed because public expectations do not match physical reality. It is far better that communities and people who are waiting know the timeline and future risks, which will enable them to make the decision to either establish a new life somewhere else or wait it out.

One final point in need of a dose of reality is the cost of rebuilding. It will take hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars to rebuild and make the Northeast Corridor resilient. A realistic price tag for the region is well beyond the federal dollars flowing slowly into these necessary efforts. But that is another story for another day.

We are not alone

The takeaway from my visit to Japan is the sense that everyone I met with is open to collaboration and information sharing. There is a hunger to know what we are doing here in the U.S., post-Sandy, and they recognize we can learn a great deal from one another. I believe that we share the same sentiment here in the Northeast. The world is collectively recognizing that we share a common future in dealing with climate change and defining resilience. I look forward to returning to Japan with an open mind and a desire to learn from our colleagues. And I look forward to a clearer path forward from our own leaders.


Illya Azaroff, AIA, is the founder of +LAB architect, PLLC in Brooklyn, NY, and an associate professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY), where he shares his expertise in disaster mitigation and resilient building strategies. He is founding co-chair of AIA New York Chapter’s Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR), and was among the leaders of the AIANY Post-Sandy Initiative and a contributor to the Post-Sandy Initiative Report. The report received the 2014 AIA National Collaborative Achievement Award; Azaroff also received the 2014 AIA National Young Architects Award. He is a trained instructor with the NDTPC-National Disaster Training Preparedness Center in Hawaii, and trained in post disaster damage assessment (SAP) by Cal EMA. His work with the AIA Regional Working Group, which incorporates experts from four regional states, garnered Azaroff the 2014 AIANYS Presidential Citation. His research in Japan and other recent disaster sites around the world have been supported by a CUNY research grant. He serves on the AIA New York State board as New York Regional Director for the Young Architects Forum (YAF), and on the AIA New York Chapter board.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


Artist Nishiko’s visualization of the height of waves from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Seawalls are being proposed across the region to meet these heights (up to approximately 65 feet).

Illya Azaroff

A typical current sea wall.

Illya Azaroff

Azaroff standing in front of a mock-up of proposed sea wall height.

Shigeru Ban Architects

Plan of Shigeru Ban’s three-story temporary housing in Onagawa, Japan.

Illya Azaroff

Shigeru Ban’s temporary housing in Onagawa started construction on July 22, 2011, and was completed on November 4, 2011.

Illya Azaroff

Community center for Shigeru Ban’s temporary housing, Onagawa.

Illya Azaroff

Sendai City temporary housing: Personal gardens, community spaces, and central square are part of the programmatic elements in these communities.

Illya Azaroff

Entryway adaptations to the temporary housing in Sendai City.

Illya Azaroff

Rain-water harvest adaptation for the temporary housing, Sendai City.

Illya Azaroff

Artwork adorns temporary housing units, Sendai City.

Illya Azaroff

Relocated indoor community space personalized with artwork by the children of the temporary housing community, Sendai City.

Illya Azaroff

Sendai City’s temporary housing, three years after the tsunami. Throughout the region 270,000 people are still displaced and living in housing such as this.

Illya Azaroff

New, multi-family replacement housing, Sendai City. Entire displaced communities were relocated together to keep a sense of neighborhood.

Illya Azaroff

Community centers and playing fields are regular programmatic elements in new Sendai City housing.

Illya Azaroff

Moving of 6-7 million cubic meters of earth for infill in Onagawa.

Marsha-Ann Cadougan/Illya Azaroff

Cut-and-fill process moving 6-7 million cubic meters of earth, Onagawa.

Marsha-Ann Cadougan/pluslab Architects

Existing roadway with proposed final height of Onagawa using 4-4.5-meter infill.

Marsha-Ann Cadougan/pluslab Architects

Dashed line indicates proposed height of infill for new Onagawa.

Illya Azaroff

Layers of coastal protection to be deployed in Ishinomaki, Japan.

Illya Azaroff

Sendai City Government meeting Illya Azaroff (center): l-r: Wataru Murakami, Manager, Sendai City Urban Planning Bureau; Masato Hasegawa Technical officer, Sendai City Urban Planning Bureau; Hitoshi Ichinohe, Seiichi Takahashi, Hiroshi Kyouya, Sendai City Urban Planning Bureau, Takeno Suzuki, Coordinator for International Relations, Miyagi Prefectural Government (translator).

Illya Azaroff

Illya Azaroff (right) with Onagawa engineer Takuro Kurushima, Construction Technology Institute (CTI) Engineering Co., Ltd., and former Director of Onagawa Reconstruction Office. They are standing in front of one of the remaining overturned structures that will be made into memorials to the devistation.

Finding a place to call home still plagues Japanese displaced by quake and tsunami



01/08/2015 7:00 AM

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For Kiichi Kida, the reason he doesn’t want to leave the land where the Great East Japan Earthquake shook his home and then triggered a killer tsunami that swept it away begins 500 years ago. That’s where he starts the story of his fight to stay on his land in Arahama, a southeastern coastal district of Sendai that was devastated on March 11, 2011 when 36-foot waves — looking more like a black stew of broken trees, bobbing cars and unmoored houses than water — rushed far, far inland. His ancestors, he explains, were samurai who lived on Shikoku, an island in western Japan. After they hung up their swords five centuries ago, they moved to the Arahama area where fish were plentiful and the mountains full of game.

Now, little remains of Arahama beyond the stone foundations of the homes once occupied by Kida, 69, and his neighbors. The city has told them they can’t rebuild on their ancestral lands because they are too close to the coast.

APTOPIX Japan Earthquake (1)

Waves of the 2011 tsunami hit residences after a powerful earthquake in Natori, Miyagi prefecture (state), Japan, March 11, 2011. It was the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history. | AP

The local government would like to buy the land and turn it into a park or other public facility, but it can’t force people like Kida to sell.That tug-of-war in Arahama points up the problems of reconstruction and rebuilding lives nearly four years since the twin wallop of the earthquake and tsunami claimed nearly 16,000 lives — 2,623 are also still listed as missing — and destroyed 127,305 homes. More than 1 million others were damaged.

In Arahama, 187 people died and six are classified as missing. It once had a population of 3,400, but now Arahama is little more than a ghost town. A wall of water that swept over the pine forest separating the community from the wide beach snapped off the trees like toothpicks and turned them into spears that came crashing into homes. “It’s the city’s opinion they should move to a safe place, rather than rebuild — expensively — on a coastal site,” said Kenichi Suzuki, who has been working with tsunami victims on behalf of Sendai’s Wakabayashi ward office. But that collides with a traditional way of thinking that some residents still embrace. “They believe that the ancestor spirits still reside in these areas and they should protect the land for them,” said Akiko Sugita, secretary general of Japan’s Foreign Press Center. “Public authorities want to encourage them to give up the land and move on, but it is taking a long time.”

Even for the third-largest economy in the world, putting communities back together is a struggle. During the disaster, 470,000 people were forced out of their homes. Some 240,000 people, including 80,000 evacuated because of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster that followed the quake and tsunami, are still displaced. They live in temporary housing or bunk with relatives and friends. “Home rebuilding is our top priority,” said Yoshifumi Ayusawa, of Japan’s Reconstruction Agency. But shortages of building materials and construction workers, land ownership issues and the relocation of residents from areas no longer considered inhabitable have slowed the process. This fiscal year work is expected to be underway on 87 percent of the public housing planned for those who lost homes. Over the span of five years, the cost of reconstruction is expected to reach $220 billion. The plan is to close the reconstruction agency dealing with the triple disaster known as 3-11 by March 2021 but the expectation is that dealing with the fallout from the nuclear plant will take far longer. Some 1.35 million tons of debris were cleaned up in Sendai after the tsunami and quake and the mountains of destroyed cars were sent to the recyclers long ago.

But the memories of March 11 are everywhere.

The bridge where traffic became so congested that people couldn’t escape still stands. At the Yuriage Junior High in nearby Natori, the clock is still stopped at 2:46 p.m., the hour the 9.0 earthquake — the greatest magnitude ever recorded in Japan — hit 40 miles offshore.

Along the more than 300 miles of Japanese coastline affected by the tsunami, tide walls are being constructed or rebuilt, and the concrete barriers — the highest will be nearly as tall as a five-story building — aren’t without controversy.

Critics claim this Great Wall of Japan won’t be sufficient to protect against a tsunami of the magnitude that ravaged the coast on March 11, are an eyesore that cuts off the sea from fishing communities and could adversely affect the environment. The government says they are needed to save lives in a country that experiences 1,000 earthquakes a year.

In Sendai, the tsunami walls are being raised from almost 20 feet to 23.6 feet. Work also has begun on raising land that sank as much as three feet after the quake and elevating a 6.2-mile stretch of the Sendai Tobu highway to 20 feet. New stairways and signs indicating people should climb the highway embankments in the face of a tsunami are being put up. The highway project is expected to take five years to complete but officials say it is vital because during the 2011 tsunami elevated sections of the highway prevented waves from flowing even further inland. “We think that with these two barriers (the elevated highway and the walls), we will be able to protect against a tsunami of the once- in-100-years variety,” said Suzuki. But the waves that pounded the northeastern coast of Japan in 2011 were of the once-in-a-millennium variety. Simulations show that with the raised embankment and higher tsunami walls, flooding on the west side of the elevated road would be less than 6 1/2 feet. Through such simulations, “we’re gaining more knowledge about how tide walls can save lives,” said Katsumi Abe, of the Miyagi Harbor Restoration agency. “We expect when the repairs are complete, this area will be safer than before.”

But Kida doesn’t think so: “I’ve opposed the walls from the beginning. They are changing the land. Every time it rains, the water flows toward the sea and those flows shouldn’t be interrupted. We think Sendai City isn’t putting enough focus on nature.” As the fractious debate continues, memories of the snowy March day when coastal residents’ world went under water are still causing psychological scars. Kida is determined to hold on to his plot even as he readies a home site further inland. “My ancestors are here and I want to protect this area as long as possible,” he said. “People should have a choice where they want to live; they shouldn’t be forced. The decision to establish restricted areas is up to Sendai and the other towns and cities along the coast, Abe said. But Kida said his ancestors came “hundreds of years before Sendai was established. I am not leaving because the city says I have to.”

He heads an organization called The Group that Wants Restoration of Arahama. “We think that living on the shore is natural in an island like Japan. Modern technology should make this possible,” Kida said. On his former home site, he has put up two buildings that seem quite permanent but technically aren’t homes. One, which has electricity and cooking facilities, is the club house for the Arahama group. The other, which includes a bathroom, will be Kida’s personal office. One of his neighbors — the only one in the community to resume fishing — has built two rough fish shacks on the land where his home once stood, and Chickako Syoji, who does office work for the Arahama restoration group, has put up a tent near her former home’s foundation stones. She dreams of someday having a seaside library on the spot. It wouldn’t be a conventional library, but rather a place where local people could come together to tell their stories and bring in books they wanted to share with others. “It won’t be a big square building with a lot of books,” she said. “My son is a librarian. It’s still in the concept stage and we’re still figuring out the details.”

But despite the hopeful dreams, Arahama and Yuriage are still desolate. Here and there a lonely pine that escaped the onslaught punctuates the coastline or a battered concrete block home stands.

“When we first came back to see Arahama, it was swept clean; there was just this vast space and it was horrifying,” said former resident Adachi Tadashi, a community leader. He later found his crushed house 2.5 miles inland. Homes, businesses, boats and the top soil from farmlands also were washed away in Yuriage. Now the wide open fields make it resemble a rural area and vegetation is beginning to reclaim the roads in a 158-acre protected area where no home can be rebuilt. “Part of the reason the damage was so great here was because we weren’t acting responsibly,’’ said Koichi Sakurai, who worked in a Yuriage seafood processing plant and fish market that was destroyed by the tsunami. “People in this area weren’t expecting a tsunami or perhaps only a small one.” Instead, he said, the giant waves came five times, killing 750 people in a district that had a pre-tsunami population of 5,000. “Evacuation drills only took place once a year — and usually only elderly people participated,” said Sakurai. “But it was a drill in name only.’’

He shows a terrifying aerial video of people moving leisurely toward higher ground as, apparently unbeknown to them, a menacing wall of water just a few rows of houses away rushes toward them.

No tsunami warning was given in Yuriage, Sakurai said, because the earthquake had already knocked out emergency communications equipment. In other areas, the rising water damaged emergency equipment. “They thought all they had to do was install the devices and their job was over. Residents have lost faith in the authorities and that is one reason reconstruction is so slow in this area,’’ Sakurai said. Abe, of the Miyagi Harbor Restoration agency, said lessons were learned during the tsunami and new emergency facilities will be built on higher ground. Meanwhile, the work of repairing docks and fish packing and distribution houses continues. The ports in Miyagi Prefecture sustained damage of around $2.2 billion but all are now at least partially operational. Many people don’t want to return to Yuriage even though they still owe debt on their destroyed homes, Sukurai said. “If I had the money, I would be rebuilding elsewhere,” he added. Many former residents are still living in temporary housing far inland from Yuriage.

“My mother is 85 years and she says she doesn’t plan to have a funeral in temporary housing,’’ Sakurai said. “I’m grateful for temporary housing but now very few people are appreciating it.” Scattered around Sendai, a city of 1.7 million, are 20 temporary housing sites with 1,500 units. Many more families, said Suzuki, have rented apartments on their own. Around 130 families live in temporary quarters on a city-owned site earmarked for the Arai elementary school. Some residents have tried to brighten up their low portable dwellings with plants and flowers but others have fallen into depression. Teams of mental health workers visit periodically. “Some are really depressed and for them, small problems can seem very big. Everyone is feeling stress but some people are annoyed by the very trivial,” said Tadashi, 72, who is a leader at temporary housing as he was in Arahama. “They complain their neighbors are too noisy or they hear pigeons and sparrows walking around on the tin roofs because people are feeding them,” he said. “We listen to their stories even if we can’t solve them. I do think this has helped me grow as a person.” To keep spirits up, there is karaoke and dancing at the community center, and a group of women has learned to play songs, such as Orange Tree on the Hill on the koto, a traditional instrument.

Katsuyoshi Hayasaka, 74, who headed the Arahama Residents’ Association has taken up a similar role at the Arai community. During the tsunami, he helped to organize community residents who sought refugee at the Arahama Elementary School and were rescued by helicopter from the roof. At the school, he tried to keep his neighbors together and drew up lists of who was there and who wasn’t. “It was very cold and the teachers tore down the curtains and wrapped the children in them,’’ he said. Now he feels a similar sense of responsibility for the people at Arai. Syoji also lives there with her 89-year-old mother Tsumeko. They are packed in but the tiny apartment does have air conditioning and everyone was given a refrigerator, microwave, rice cooker, small television, washing machine, blankets and a pot to boil water. Still, Tsumeko is happy. When the family’s home was swept way, the wooden memorial plaque for her ancestors was lost. It later turned up in a lost-and-found and she beamed as she displayed the nicked but still intactihai to a visitor.

Syoji had hoped to only be in temporary quarters for two years but she said there have been delays in finishing the public housing where she hopes to move. Sendai plans 3,200 units of new public housing but in October, just 660 units had been completed.At Arai-higashi, where a new 197-unit building recently opened, residents gathered at the community center on a rainy afternoon after the remnants of a typhoon had blown through. Even though the complex hasn’t been fully completed, they were moved in anyway because the need was so great. The rent varies at Arai-higashi depending on income, but it is about one-third the cost of regular public housing.About a third of the residents used to live in Arahama, and about 40 percent are 65 years or older — an age when change comes hard. With Suzuki’s help, they had just formed a residents association. “We’re planning on building a community here,” said Kimio Oyashi, 71, the newly minted association president. “We’re pretty satisfied to be here. The size of our apartments is about double what it was in temporary housing. And there you could hear everything the neighbors were doing.” “We’re making efforts to get our lives back together. We just have to keep trying,’ said Teruko Sumi, who recently move in with her two chihuahuas. Unlike most public housing buildings, pets are allowed at Arai-higashi.

Tani Endo, who used to live in Arahama, is feeling much better since the first traumatic days after the tsunami. “It was almost like watching a movie — not our real lives. People were all stacked together after the disaster and we all had to sleep in the same room. “I try to forget but when I look from this building I can see the place where all the pines trees were in Arahama and now there is nothing there,” she said. “But this is a nice place and we have our privacy. Now we are smiling again.” “More than 3 1/2 years have passed,” said Oyashi. “Many people who are here lost everything and we think living in a safe place is most important. Only a small percentage of people want to return — mostly the rice farmers. But for former office workers, it is just too scary.” Sokichi Shoji, 78, and his wife Sachiko have done their best to make their new apartment seem like home even though it is only about a third of the size of their former house. They have brought in plants, artificial turf and stones to recreate the tranquility of a zen garden on their small balcony.