What can New Zealand learn from Typhoon Hagibis-hit Japan?

As 1 NEWS NOW's Natalia Sutherland hunkered down in a Tokyo hotel during Typhoon Hagibis, she wondered what lessons New Zealand could take from Japan's level of preparedness as a natural disaster loomed. 

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There are still 18 people missing, according to authorities there. Source: Breakfast

Typhoon Hagibis will go down as one of the worst storms to reach the shores of Japan in decades, causing significant damage to communities along the eastern coast, and the loss of life. 

Yet, it could have been much worse if Japan wasn’t as prepared as it is for such events. 

The 19th typhoon to hit the country this year, it would be easy to become complacent with warning fatigue.

But as the dire predictions came in the week leading up to the typhoon, Japan went into preparation mode.

The day before the storm was predicted to hit, businesses let staff go early, stores prepared to shut up shop and locals began shopping for a day stuck inside. 

Public transport was promptly shut down and airports prepared to look after stranded travellers while the storm passed over the country Saturday night.

Emergency workers were also out in areas in the path of the storm preparing to evacuate whole towns to centres that were already up and running, just in case they were needed. 

With record amounts of rainfall and pictures of mass flooding you would think the city of Tokyo, which was directly in the sight of Hagibis, would have woken up to some damage to buildings or surface flooding from clogged drains at least.

But the day following the typhoon, the metropolitan centre of Tokyo was left largely unscathed.

This is all down to Japan’s world-class infrastructure – something they’re not shy in telling everyone about.

With natural disasters from earthquakes to numerous typhoons, Japan has been working on its infrastructure to prepare for its next massive earthquake.

Speaking to The Guardian early this year, a Tokyo metropolitan government spokesperson said national building law standards were established in such a way that “a building is not to be susceptible to collapse in the event of a major earthquake”.

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Typhoon Hagibis is still yet to make landfall in Japan. Source: 1 NEWS

This results of these strict standards was seen in the 2011 earthquake where buildings swayed but didn’t collapse.

Being the fourth biggest economy in the world, Japan has the luxury of spending billions on its floodgates and levees which protect its major cities from storm surges.

Having seen how well Japan’s infrastructure has coped with such a storm as Hagibis, I wonder what New Zealand could learn.

It is hard to compare us with Japan, an ancient country that has for not hundreds, but thousands of years dealt with natural disasters and wars and has had its fair share of infrastructure collapses – just take Fukushima nuclear disaster for example.

Yet, just this past week, the MetService and NIWA warned New Zealanders to be prepared for the Pacific cyclone season, with nine to 12 cyclones predicted for 2020.

Although New Zealand gets hit by one ex-tropical cyclone a year, these storms can pack a powerful punch.

Ex-tropical Gita caused significant damage when it passed over our shores last year, despite its downgraded status.

With the climate constantly changing and more cyclone activity in the Pacific, it time to start thinking proactively about mitigation, not just reacting when disaster looms. 

When a bit of rain can cause flooding in central parts of Auckland, are we ready for larger storms to reach our shores?

And what can we learn from countries like Japan, who has a longer history than we do with natural disasters, to help prevent our cities from damage?

With the establishment of the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission - Te Waihanga this month we will start to see investment in not only roads but public facilities as well.

The estimated investment is proposed to be nearly $130 million and could be used on upgrading infrastructure like our water networks.

But safeguarding against the changing weather is another huge expensive project, which is a difficult topic to tackle.

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Saturday's match against Italy has been abandoned due to Typhoon Hagibis. Source: 1 NEWS

John Campbell showed that in his coverage of the erosion in the West Coast for the Sunday programme, where residents lost land during ex-tropical cyclone Gita. 

The big question is who should pay? Central government or local? Should ratepayers or the taxpayer pay for property to be protected from the elements?

Sacha Haskell from Palmerston North Council has been in Japan with a rugby museum tour in the City of Toyota.

While here she also attended the Japan New Zealand Business Council meeting in Kashiwa and the Asian smart city conference in Yokohama.

She’s seen first-hand how local governments are working here to improve their cities with universities, private business and commercial partners working together to come up with solutions for their cities.

“These are collaborations between public, private and education research - designed to advance lifestyle for citizens in a sustainable way, taking into account city popular growth pressure on housing, health and city infrastructure.”

She believes to improve our infrastructure local government needs more help than it’s currently getting.

“I feel NZ local government is subject to such scrutiny that this diminishes flexible, innovative and creative conversations between research, education, and private and public partnerships, (preventing them) delivering similar new initiatives and different ways of doing things in a nimble manner.

“I personally believe the mentality has to change by both society and media around retrenching council activity to cut cost and reduce rates as (being) desirable.”

As Kiwis we are big on learning and sorting out tough issues, and this is one we have to start discussing.

For Japan, although not perfect, investing in protecting its citizens is a priority.

New Zealand has been proactive in sharing its knowledge in the agriculture sector, but we can also learn from others, and Japan seems the right place.

It could save not only property, but lives as well.