- Older People in Natural Disasters
Recent world events – including the massive earthquakes in Haiti (January 2010), Chile (February 2010), New Zealand (February 2011), and Japan (March 2011) – have increased awareness of the human devastation that is caused by these geologic events. These events have many similarities as evidenced in the news footage showing efforts of the international humanitarian community to respond in the immediate aftermath of such disasters, regardless of the affected nation’s level of economic and technologic development. Differences in scenes of destruction and in the search and rescue response are largely a matter of degree (scale, intensity, and immediacy), not kind.
Differences that reflect the significance of local and cultural factors become increasingly apparent as the emphasis shifts from disaster response to recovery mode. Disaster recovery includes a wide range of activities aimed at restoring community life and services to “normal” or pre-disaster states. Recovery efforts shape how people will live post-disaster, especially people who, for various reasons, require a greater degree of organized support to re-establish their lifestyles. Individuals may need assistance to reconstruct their homes, access health and social services, re-constitute and stabilize social networks, and achieve economic viability after a disaster. The extent to which recovery assistance is available, accessible, appropriate, and ultimately effective reflects characteristics of both the local context in which the disaster occurred and the national context in which the recovery effort is situated.
Older People in Natural Disasters, by Junko Otani, represents a treasure trove of observations, insights, and interpretations about the long-term recovery process in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake for one disproportionately vulnerable segment of society – older people – in one distinct cultural context: Japanese society. The centerpiece of Otani’s book is the Great Hanshin earthquake of January 17, 1995, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, and devastated an area twenty kilometers long and one kilometer wide, [End Page 670] including Kobe, Japan, and other nearby cities. It affected 1.6 million inhabitants, killed 6,400 people (half of whom were over age 60), and caused massive physical damage, including the destruction of approximately 400,000 homes. The immediate result was an urgent need for temporary shelter housing (TSH) for displaced people, accompanied by a longer-term need to develop housing for resettlement (known as public reconstruction housing: PHR) on a large scale. The book focuses on the resettlement of elderly people who had neither family support to rely on, nor financial self-sufficiency, first in TSH and then in PRH.
A major strength of the text is the richness of the data that was analyzed to describe the long-term recovery process for the population of interest. The author conducted discourse analysis of media data (TV, newspapers, and fieldwork interviews around the fourth and fifth anniversaries of the earthquake as well as published reports and books) to identify the main foci of public attention and how that changed over time. She also conducted secondary analysis of the annual Hyogo Prefecture Health Surveys (1996–1998) and ethnographic research at several TSH and PRH compounds in central and suburban Kobe. The author’s participant observation strategies in these compounds included working as a volunteer waitress at a tea shop, accompanying a public health nurse patrol on home visits, and observing organized social activities. The author matches writing style to context, resulting in an interesting read that ranges from dispassionate academic discourse on facts and figures to intimate self-disclosure of thoughts and feelings while directly engaged in observational data collection. Her description of the use of computer assisted qualitative analysis software (NVivo) to aid in the discourse analysis of media data and content analysis of interviews, field notes, observational data and other documents, reported to be the first such attempt in Japanese research, provides an interesting side-study for those interested in this methodological challenge.
The research poignantly illustrates the long, drawn-out – sometimes unending – process of disaster recovery for older people, especially those who are most vulnerable: those without financial self-sufficiency or family support. The author...