What Universities Can Do for Society in Emergency

Prof. Atsuomi Obayashi

Prof. Atsuomi Obayashi

Prof. Atsuomi Obayashi, Keio Business School, addresses how universities can help with disaster relief and offers a touching account of his own experience

On 14-18 March, 2015, the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai, Japan. Various issues were discussed on understanding, preventing and recovering from disasters. School safety and disaster education were among the issues.

A successful example of disaster education was conducted by Professor Toshitaka Katada of Gumma University, Japan. In his education program, Professor Katada teaches earthquake and tsunami mechanisms and instructs in education establishments how to evacuate in the vent of these occurring. His training was tested when a large earthquake and tsunami hit Kamaishi city, where he had visited elementary schools and given classes, in 2011. The result was that all elementary school students in the city escaped from the schools to safe high lands, while their schools were submerged by the tsunami. Elder students took the hands of younger students to lead them to safety. Some of the students decided to leave the place assigned as a tsunami escape and went to even higher ground. Judging from the size of the quake, they thought that an extraordinary high tsunami wave might come as a result. Such cautious judgement, regardless of assigned procedure, was among the guidelines that Professor Katada taught to students. In fact, the pre-assigned escape was submerged by the tsunami of that day. Eventually, no students were killed. People call it the miracle of Kamaishi.

Besides disaster education, universities contribute to disaster risk reduction by research.  In addition, there is also another way for universities to contribute to society in emergency; to use its physical and human resources for victims. It was not a miraculous example like the Kamaishi’s, but I happened to witness it during the same earthquake at my university.

My university is located far from the epicenter, and the quake here was not devastating. Even though, the power went down and transportation stopped in the area. My campus hosted 800 people who lost transportation on that day. We delivered emergency food and drink to them. It was snowing and we prepared for more people to come from outside at night. Fortunately, the power and transport services became operational at 11 p.m. and most people were able to go home that day. However, if the emergency had lasted longer, the university campus could have shown its potential as a shelter. The university has a lot of rooms, and if needed, a cafeteria, kiosk and clinic. In addition, I was delighted to discover a further, “powerful” resource of the university. On the day of the earthquake, an old lady in a wheelchair dropped by our campus building looking for a shelter. Four students found her and immediately lifted the wheelchair with the lady on it and carried it inside and upstairs to the warm second floor. This was a shining example of the goodwill and power of young, Japanese students in an ageing Japanese society. In many ways, a university’s best resource is its students.

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