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The Great Hanshin (or Kobe) Earthquake – Japan 1995

The Great Hanshin, or Kobe, Earthquake occurred at 05:46 JST on the 17th January 1995, in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. The earthquake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale but was unusually destructive because it occurred so near the surface (14 km down), it caused the south side of the Nojima Fault to move 1.5m to the right and 1.2 meters downwards.

The death toll was 4,600 in Kobe itself, and 6,434 in total. The scene in Kobe was one of total devastation, 150,000 buildings were destroyed, highways were shattered. The cost of the damage was estimated at $100 bn.

Eye Witness Account by Kurt Mundt:

“At 5:46 am, January 17, life as I know it came to an abrupt, shattering end. The apartment I was living in was severely damaged. The roof is gone. Everything that could fall, did. I had gone to bed at 3 am Monday night after a three day weekend, worried about waking up in time to catch the bus to work the next morning. I had felt tremors here before; my house was old and shook easily, but the shaking at 5:46 was like nothing I have ever experienced before. I thought the place was collapsing around me as dirt (from the roofing) cascaded onto my head. The world was filled with a bass roar, and the sound of breaking glass, of roof tiles falling, and the shrieks of rending old wood. It went on forever (I can’t believe it was only 20 seconds…). I curled up in my bed and waited to see if I would die. After an eternity, the earth stopped moving- I was stunned and scared and full of adrenaline. Dust filled the air, choking me. In the pitch darkness, I threw back the covers and pushed my stereo set off of me. I groped my way to my desk across the room where I knew 1 had left a flashlight. The one thought in my mind was to get the hell out of the house before it fell down on me. I knew that I had to get outside, had to get to the gas line and shut it off. I could not find the light–everything was on the floor, so I gave up and felt my way into the living room.

There, in a drawer of my bookcase, I had put another flashlight just the night before. But the bookcase had toppled onto my glass-topped coffee table. Books and glass were everywhere. The inner doors of the entrance hall leaned into the room, complimenting the closet doors, which were nowhere near the closet. The tilted drawers of the bookcase had spilled their contents everywhere. I scrambled through the wreckage desperately once, then twice, and finally found the damn light. By a miracle, with the light I found my glasses, my pants, and a jacket. I crammed my passport and bank book in one pocket and climbed over the furniture to the front door.

The door was jammed. For days afterwards my back hurt from the force I used to open the door. All I could think of was to get to the gas shutoff. Fire is the killer after the quake. I knew I needed to get to the gas main. And I did. Outside, everything was a shambles. Roof tiles clogged the street. Dust filled the air. Smoke was already rising just South of my neighborhood. The smell of gas filled the world. ….

I could hear gas hissing out of broken pipes. I saw a woman carrying a lighted candle and jumped her, snuffing the candle. I had just enough presence of mind to speak Japanese the whole time. I could see flames licking the sky just a quarter mile away. Everybody was in the street by now, their shocked faces white in the rising dawn. Kunie came out of the gloom and hugged me. I remember those minutes well, but the next 8 or 10 hours are a long blur. The family was uninjured, their house only moderately damaged. I left Kunie and her mom to the cleanup and wandered around, looking at the place I’ve known for almost ten years. The fire to the south grew larger, the smoke denser. I went to look.

It was obvious to me that there were far too few firemen, and far too little water to stop the fire. They tried to contain it but as I watched, I saw one home after another consumed. Ordinary people grabbed hoses and sprayed the flames, but at least 60 homes were gone already. I circled the burning area, surveying the extent of it. I could see it was spreading. We live only a quarter-mile away and I was afraid the fire would come to my area. During the day I kept going back and checking the progress of the fire. At one point, the wind shifted, and burning embers swirled over me, burning holes in my nylon flight jacket. By that time, I had found my camera and was taking pictures. Some buildings that were standing when I shot them are piles of cinders now. The fire here raged for 17 hours before it died and left almost 200 homes destroyed.  ….

During the first week of the disaster, the roads were so bad that food and other supplies simply could not get in. The elevated highways that you saw collapsed ran above the surface highways, which were blocked by the debris. Our family luckily had both food and water from the beginning. Both of Kunie’s parents were children during the war, and remember starving. Kunie says this made them determined to never be hungry again, and so we had more than enough food.

The most amazing thing about this experience for me is that there was no panic. There was no looting. Shops opened the day of the quake. Cleanup started immediately. People stood in lines for food and water and were quiet and patient. Those who had money paid for what they received while those who had none also received basic necessities. Many banks were devastated, but they set up offices in other banks that were still functioning. Money is not a problem at this point.”

I have heard other accounts of how the survivors walked for many miles from the ruins of Kobe, surrounded by devastation on all sides, a seemingly endless journey in a post-apocalyptic world.

The damage to Kobe’s infrastructure was severe, outages of electric power and telecommunications lasted about 1 week; water and natural gas up to three months; passenger railways up to seven months,and highways and port infrastructure, about two years. This earthquake changed the way in which Japan prepared for earthquakes, highway resilience was increased, and new procedures were put in place to allow the military to respond without reference to central authorities. As happened in New York after Hurricane Sandy, the government (local and national) spent heavily on measures to improve the responses in future disasters. Emergency supply dumps were established and strategic routes were identified, where roads were strengthened.

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