On March 11, Terri Norton was among millions who watched news of the horrific “Tohoku” earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Three months later she walked amid the devastation, bringing her expertise to study and help the communities dealing with the challenges of life after disaster.
Norton, an assistant professor with UNL’s Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction at the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, teaches and researches the effects natural hazards have on civil structures, disaster debris management and sustainability.
She traveled to northeast Japan June 18-26 with teams gathered by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. Other EERI participants were placed with groups studying bridge performance or engineering of buildings; Norton joined a team working with the Japanese Institute for Social Safety Science (ISSS), a nonprofit organization focused on impact recovery.
“I have a seed grant from The Durham School regarding debris management,” Norton said. “This trip fit with that, as an extreme example” of an opportunity to develop and apply her research.
"The damage was beyond what I had imagined."
- Terri Norton
Her team visited Iwate and Miyagi prefectures but, for safety reasons, Fukushima prefecture (with its nuclear power plants disabled by the March 11 events) would be studied remotely via provided data. Norton observed, “Some cities have started removing debris, but other areas haven’t moved anything yet because the local governments are still overwhelmed.”
Norton, who spent time in Italy following an earthquake, said being in Japan so soon after such destruction was especially moving.
“The damage was beyond what I had imagined,” said Norton. “To stand on a site and see nothing but rubble around you--the footprints of buildings, things that used to be there—you think about all that was lost.” While touring, she saw several public shelters in schools, showing many lives still disrupted; Norton expressed particular concern for ongoing difficulties faced by local farmers and fishermen in those areas where livelihoods would take years to resume.
According to Norton, the first step in post-disaster clean-up is to categorize the debris for most efficient handling. In many cases “wood can be reused, steel can be recycled and sold as scrap metal, and concrete can be repurposed as fill for embankments.”
Early reports from EERI visits noted one affected city, Minami Sanriku, estimates 700,000 tons of debris need to be cleared, sorted and reused, recycled or disposed of. Norton said Iwate prefecture’s purchase of giant kilns for burning some waste items was interesting, but material lifecycle and public health issues are also important considerations.
On the last day of the visit, the EERI teams regrouped in Tokyo for a concluding workshop to develop research ideas and partnerships. Norton’s report from her site visit is scheduled to appear on the EERI website in August, and she’s submitting a research proposal on recycling and reuse in debris management to the National Science Foundation.
Norton said she found several “take-aways” from visiting the area in northeast Japan impacted by the March 11 “Tohoku” earthquake and tsunami:
• No engineered structure is 100% fail-safe, as there may be extreme events that can’t be planned for, so there always has to be a clear emergency management plan.
• The impact of this type of natural disaster goes beyond the effect on the immediate community: a chain reaction with issues for surrounding areas’ business and public partners--which government must take into account.
• Recovery and reconstruction at this scale can’t be done by just the communities themselves. Regardless of how technologically advanced the directly-impacted community is, it will need the help other of cities and other nations.