When the Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe in 1995, professional responders as well as volunteers worked courageously to rescue the survivors, but Japan lacked a comprehensive system for disaster management, resulting in numerous delays and problems in the response.
Following this catastrophic event, the Japanese government began sending emissaries to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where I worked in Washington D.C., looking for ideas on how to strengthen Japan's disaster response.
For years after that, Japanese authorities would continue to study the idea of establishing a FEMA-like agency in Japan, but they never took action to do so.
When eastern Japan was shaken by a violent earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, once again the professional responders and the volunteers worked tirelessly to assist the survivors, but their efforts were hampered by an inefficient response system, and many people in the disaster area suffered needlessly.
-- Valuable commodities such as food and medicine were often delivered to locations where they were not needed, while survivors at other locations suffered shortages.
-- Donations of badly needed items such as clothing, tools, and canned food were turned away because the government had no system for receiving and managing donations.
-- Some shelters were poorly managed, and some were not managed at all.
-- Doctors treating patients in the disaster area often could not locate anyone at the health ministry in Tokyo to answer their questions.
-- Hospitals in the disaster area lacked a system for obtaining needed supplies.
-- Medical teams dispatched to the area lost contact with their bases, leaving them with no clear idea of where they were needed most.
-- Fire departments from around the country arrived to help, but had no standard management system to draw upon, and so spent precious time developing a plan of action in the middle of the disaster response.
And afterward, some again suggested creating a Japan FEMA.
What's so special about FEMA?
There is nothing magical about FEMA. It's simply a government agency, and like any government agency, when it is well-led and has sufficient staff and budget, it does well; when poorly led, and lacks staff and budget, it does poorly.
This in turn depends on the U.S. president, who gets to appoint the FEMA director and who has a large say in FEMA's staffing and budget.
Thus, under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama we saw excellent responses by FEMA to the Northridge Earthquake (1994), the Oklahoma City Bombing (1995) and Hurricane Sandy (2012).
In contrast, under Presidents George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, we saw not-so-excellent responses to Hurricane Andrew in Florida (1992), Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (2017).
Clearly, FEMA's success or failure largely depends on the leadership at the top, but I believe that the FEMA concept itself is a good one: Establish a permanent, full-time government agency to lead the way for disaster management.
Japan does have its Cabinet Office for Disaster Management, but the office is too small for the job, and worse, it suffers from the same "two years and out" system of the Japanese government: after two years in a particular office or agency, staff rotate away to new assignments.
This means that staff of this office have very little time to gain the kind of disaster experience that my colleagues and I were able to gain in our many years at FEMA.
It also means that, at every Japanese disaster, many of the people involved are new to the job, and the prime minister and his staff must try to invent the disaster response on the spot.
This type of ad hoc effort may appear heroic, but it is not a very efficient way of doing things.
A "formula" for a successful FEMA-type agency may be difficult to define, and Japan must follow its own cultural and political path to building a strong emergency management capability.
But based on my nearly 29 years at FEMA, I believe that the following factors would be key to the success of a modern emergency management agency in any country, including Japan:
1. A lead agency with competent leadership, well-trained long-term staff, a clearly-defined mission, enabling legislation, an adequate budget, and visible proximity and direct access to the government's chief executive.
2. Partnership and cooperation among national government agencies, state and local governments, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, the academic sector, private citizens, and international partners.
3. Input from key persons and organizations in all relevant fields such as public health, medicine, fire service, law enforcement, environmental protection, social welfare, construction, and others.
4. A comprehensive approach that takes the "all-hazard" approach, whereby plans are categorized not by type of disaster but by mechanism of the disaster response such as transportation, communications, and public works and engineering. FEMA commended 15 mechanisms including the three.
Japan is prone to disasters, and the threat is too important to leave to ad hoc responses that are created on the spot.
I haven't yet seen definitive reports of the response to the recent floods in western Japan, but if problems surface as they did in 1995 and 2011, or if the same problems threaten to occur in future disasters, maybe it's time for the Japanese government to stop talking about establishing an agency like FEMA in Japan and actually take some action.
(Leo Bosner is a retired disaster specialist of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.)