Lessons in Disaster Response from the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami

By Rachael Wolff

Tsunami comes from the Japanese characters meaning harbor (津tsu) and wave (波nami). While earthquakes and their resulting tsunamis have been a part of Japanese life since at least the 13th century, the 2011 duo that rocked Japan was the largest ever recorded in the country and fourth largest in the world. Interviews with first responders reveal their challenges with mental health and with “role conflict,” suggesting that communication could be improved during future man-made or natural disasters.

Japan is part of the “Ring of Fire,” home to the volatile Pacific Plate. Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

Three Disasters

Tōhoku is located in the northeastern region of Japan’s main Honshu island and is known for its hot springs, sake, cherry blossoms, and skiing. Though Tōhoku’s six prefectures are generally rural with a large elderly population, the city of Sendai was one of the most vulnerable areas hit. 

Map of Tōhoku, Japan. Photo Credit: Tōhoku Tourism Promotion Organization

At 2:45 pm on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan. The epicenter was detected 64 miles off of the Sendai coast and was estimated to be only 18.6 miles below the surface. Days before, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake with 6.0 magnitude aftershocks had occurred nearby. The pressure from the colliding tectonic plates was enough to create 9 to 131-foot tsunami waves that rolled in at the speed of a jet plane. These waves caused millions of dollars in damage as far east as California.

March 11, 2011 Shakemap. Photo Credit: The New York Times

At the time of the disaster, Japan was home to 54 nuclear reactors. The shocks from the earthquake-tsunami led to fires in multiple nuclear plants on the island, and the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was at the center of the scrutiny and press coverage. The Fukushima incident displaced more than 160,000 local residents, caused 44 deaths, and led to the sale of radioactive beef. Meanwhile, Japan also worked to control the smaller fires that burned along its coast. 

The immediate aftereffects of these disasters were devastating. Within 48 hours, 10 percent of the island—or 6 million homes—had lost power. Overall, between 15,000 and 30,000 people had perished, and there were some 100,000 missing children. The total damages in Japan may have reached $220 billion, destroying infrastructure, economies, and livelihoods—especially in farming and fishing villages such as Ishinomaki.

People take shelter as a ceiling collapses in a bookstore during the earthquake in Sendai, northeastern Japan, on March 11, 2011. Photo Credit: Kyodo/Reuters via The Atlantic

The Responders

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 100,000 members of the Self-Defense Force deployed, rescuing people trapped under buildings and stuck in flood waters. Elite squads of firefighters did the same, many of them rushing towards the Fukushima Daiichi disaster instead of away from it.

Dr. Michelle Dovil specializes in disaster risk, gender studies, and environmental inequality at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. In September 2014 during her doctoral program, she accompanied her advisor and Howard University professor Dr. Terri Adams to interview first responders in Sendai. 

Dovil said some of the most surprising results from the sample of firefighters they interviewed were the respondents’ hesitation towards emotional and psychological impacts.* While some admitted to not sleeping, depression, and triggers such as shaking or a tsunami movie on TV, none admitted to receiving any help. The government offered testing and subsequent counseling, but most firefighters were not receptive to it. Dovil observed that the trend may be similar in African American and Latinx communities, where mental health is still considered a “big taboo.” Indeed, both contemporary and academic sources suggest stigma and denial of mental health is common in Japan.

The firefighters also balanced emergency response and personal duties in a challenge of “role conflict.” Similar to what Adams and Dovil found post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, many first responders were conflicted between the need to help others and the desire to keep track of their own family, friends, and loved ones.

“With the challenges, especially with the role conflict, we saw a lot of similarities [to other disasters] as it relates to just being concerned: their anxiety, the frustration, and the worry,” Dovil said.

While focus groups did not directly address the topic of risk, many firefighters expressed that the earthquake-tsunami was unexpected. One respondent called on people to “take care of themselves.” Another added, “just evacuate and don’t think.” One respondent may have alluded to the Japanese concept of wa (和), or “social harmony,” in his final remarks:

“Japanese people support each other, so the conflict is very low. Japanese people are very polite and have good morals even in disasters. Japanese people will aim to support others.”

Firefighters search for victims on March 14, 2011, in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, three days after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck. Photo Credit: AP via The Atlantic


Throughout the interview, both the firefighters and Dovil stressed the importance of information dissemination. While Japan is often seen as a leader in early warning systems and the emergency management community (also: TIME, World Bank, Washington Post), there were still breakdowns in communication. Specifically, phone systems were overwhelmed. At one fire station, there was a line for disaster victims but not another to communicate tasks to workers. Broadly, coastal and remote areas had difficulty evacuating. 

Dovil stressed that risk should be tailored to specific communities because there is no “monolithic group.” Instead: “Risk communication is a component in how people receive this message and how they perceive the message, which inadvertently impacts how these communities will take protective actions and/or evacuate as a result of a disaster.”

After the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, 91 countries provided aid to Japan. It becomes crucial for governments at all levels to understand the populations they serve so that disaster response and recovery can be as effective and efficient as possible.

* Dovil, Michelle. Interview by Rachael Wolff. March 16, 2020.

Featured Image: Huge waves sweep ashore and flood Sendai Airport. Photo Credit: Kyodo/Reuters via International Business Times.

About the Author: Rachael Wolff is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She is interested in learning how flood risk shapes land use, property values and behavior. Prior to UNC, Rachael worked at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., where she also earned her bachelor’s degree at American University.