Planners from Japan talk tsunami prep, recovery in Westport

Urban planning researchers from the University of Washington and two universities in Japan are taking lessons learned from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed 20,000 in Japan in 2011 and using them to build a plan to better prepare Westport and surrounding areas in the case of a similar event here.

They presented some of their research at a public forum at Ocosta Elementary School Monday, directly under the school’s vertical tsunami evacuation platform.

“We’re very excited to be here in the first community to build a vertical tsunami evacuation tower,” said Daniel Abramson, University of Washington associate professor of urban design and planning.

The joint effort between the University of Washington and the City of Westport will last through the fall and likely beyond, said Abramson. There will be another open house in mid-November, where university planners and city officials can get back together and discuss what has been learned and how it could apply to Westport specifically. To keep up to date on this town hall, email to get on a mailing list.

Westport public works director Kevin Goodrich kicked off Monday night’s forum.

“Urban planning can benefit our citizens in Westport and allow us to better prepare for and respond to tsunami events,” he said.

One member of the University of Washington team is research coordinator Kiana Ballo, who has close ties to the Westport community. She grew up on her family’s oyster farm there and still lists Brady’s Oysters on her resume as a retail associate and design curator. She also served as an urban planning intern for the City of Westport in the summer of 2017, working with the mayor and public works director to review and update the city’s shoreline plan, parks plan, design guidelines and comporehensive plan.

Disaster overview

Liz Maly, UW-educated and current faculty member at Tohoku University — Tohuku was one of the cities in the direct path of the tsunami — gave an overview of the disaster and some of the recovery that has occurred in the seven years since.

Survival factors

Who survived and who didn’t came down partly to location and preparation. Maly gave an example of a high school in Sendai, where more than 300 students were saved because they had been drilled frequently and their school was sound structurally and tall enough to allow them to stay out of the waves’ way. Helicopters plucked students from the roof of the school into the next morning, two at a time, until all were rescued.

There’s the “Miracle of Kamaishi,” where nearly all the region’s students were spared. Maly said junior high students rushed out of the school immediately after the quake. Their response encouraged the nearby elementary school to follow them to high ground.

Students at Okawa Elementary School, however, were not as prepared. “They (the school) just had a boilerplate evacuation plan,” said Maly. “The kids and teachers gathered in the schoolyard for 45 minutes instead of evacuating to a mountain right behind the school. Instead they went toward the river and most were washed away.”


“There were relocation projects in Japan after tsunamis in 1896 and 1933,” said Maly. Those generations may have relocated, but as decades went by with no other disasters, memories fade and the allure of coastal living once again draws people back toward the water.

The key to surviving a large tsunami is not just one thing but a combination of things that can work together, said Maly.

“We need to think of multiple defenses, not just building a wall,” she said. Japan is still building big walls and structures, she said, but also new housing develpoments are being constructed “up high, away from the coast.”

After the disaster, designated damaged areas were declared hazardous and no building can take place, said Maly. The Japanese government has been buying that land so those landowners can purchase new lots for private homes or get into public housing. To date, about 96 percent of the planned 30,500-plus units have been completed.


The Japanese government had to figure out a way to expedite construction and relocation after the widespread destruction, said Kanako Iuichi, associate professor at Tohuku University.

“The government approached it collaboratively,” she said. “It relied on the input of academics and specialists” and “the citizens and government have to work together.”

Community committees had actually been formed in 2005, and after the disaster “the committees take the lead on decisions like housing relocation,” said Iuichi. “The committees can better accommodate the cultural needs of their citizens.”

There may be some families and individuals who do not want to leave their cultural home. There may be others who want to relocate but are low-income and require some sort of public housing. These community committees sort through them and devise a plan that works best for each case, whenever possible.

As Maly explained, some rehousing options after the disaster included simply moving developments to higher ground, away from the tsunami risk. These developments consist of residential housing only and work better for smaller communities.

In more developed urban areas, the land may be modified to facilitate rebuilding. This would include building up the height above sea level of the ground itself and using structures like sea walls to further protect the infrastructure, which will have residences and non-residential buildings and facilities.


Urban planning researcher Ichiko Taro from Tokyo Metropolitan University explained levels of preparedness impacting chances of survival of a large-scale earthquake and tsunami, “empowering evacuation judgment and conduct,” he called it. “Early self-judgment” can be a key, meaning as soon as the ground stops shaking, you instinctively know to get to high ground. Being able to react to what you see around you, like groups of people streaming by in a single direction, or even spotting the wave itself, can give you a chance at escaping.

“Reaction varies across communities,” he said, but stressed having a family evacuation plan in place, one that is practiced, can make escapability more possible.

Ongoing cooperation

Abramson said public comment is crucial to the process, as community members typically know better than anybody else what the largest strengths and weaknesses infrastructure-wise there are in the places they live.

For instance, plotting your own local evacuation routes. “Yours may be similar to countywide routes, but they will be more detailed, and they’ll be yours,” he said.