This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on June 23, 2014
Immediately after the earthquake on March 11th, 2011, people all over Japan began sending relief supplies to the disaster-stricken areas.
Rice, water, blankets, and a variety of other goods poured into the area to help those who had lost everything.
However, many of the relief supplies were in fact not delivered promptly to the people staying in emergency shelters.
Warehouses used for storage became so packed with boxes they could no longer function smoothly.
But then the logistics professionals came to the rescue. Why had the flow of supplies frozen? And how was this major problem overcome?
Today’s reporter is journalist Morley Robertson.
“This whole layout is a logical structure. To me, that is very professional and very impressive.”
(Morley Robertson: Journalist)
Morley reports on the struggles of the professionals who took on the challenge of dealing with the mountain of relief supplies.
The Great East Japan Earthquake caused catastrophic damage to Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture. Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, over 20,000 people were forced to live in around 100 shelters.
Morley visits the place where relief supplies from all over the country were gathered at that time.
“This was where the relief supplies were collected prior to distribution to individual shelters.”
This area, where construction of public housing for disaster victims is now underway, was the site of a fruit and vegetable market three years ago.
The warehouse was undamaged by the tsunami and vacant at the time, so Kesennuma city officials decided to use it for gathering and storing relief supplies.
Every day immediately after the earthquake, around 40 ten-ton trucks arrived here to deliver supplies.
The trucks were unloaded by about 100 city officials, Self Defense Forces personnel and volunteers and the supplies were then distributed to the shelters.
However, many of the supplies remained in the warehouse, and were not delivered for a long time.
Then, a major privately-owned carrier offered to help. Around 10 days after the earthquake, logistics expert Nobuyuki Shinohara was called to the warehouse by a colleague in Kesennuma City.
He recreates the situation at the time for Morley, using a model.
“This is the fruit and vegetable market car park. And this is the road, with the entrance over here. Trucks would unload their freight like this. There were a lot of beverages, like water. I think the water was stacked over here. These light blue boxes.”
(Nobuyuki Shinohara: Logistics expert)
There were also clothes, bedding, toilet paper, diapers, and a huge variety of other supplies scattered everywhere.
“So what’s the problem here?”
“Well, I think only the people who unloaded the trucks really knew where things were. The aisles were also irregular, making it very difficult to move stuff around.”
“The result of random storage?”
“Yes. Freight is normally stored properly as soon as it’s unloaded, but in this case there were no proper aisles.”
Because nobody knew exactly what was stored where, it took time to find suitable supplies to send to each shelter.
There was a reason why the constant stream of inbound supplies couldn’t be stored in an orderly fashion, resulting in this situation.
“It was because the on-site staff gathered supplies from everywhere in response to people’s generosity. They prioritized the gathering of supplies.”
“So you accepted all inbound supplies in spite of the confusion.”
“Yes, I think that was the general attitude.”
The warehouse staff did not want to keep the drivers waiting, because they had come a long way to deliver the goods, so they quickly unloaded the supplies and put them wherever there was any space.
Nobuyuki realized that they would never be able to distribute supplies smoothly if the situation remained unchanged, so he decided to take action. Even though the trucks were being loaded with the generosity of people nationwide, he decided to freeze everything for a while.
He was able to make the decision because he remained calm in the face of confusion. And following his instructions, everyone began tidying up the warehouse.
“The most efficient way, of course, is to put all similar items together, but before we could allocate a space for beverages here, for example, everything in front had to be moved. So we temporarily moved everything outside. There was water over here, too. So we moved it all to one spot and made an area here for beverages. Everything had to be moved once before gathering it in a designated spot. As I said before, there were no aisles, so we created aisles, too, so that everyone would be able to access the supplies easily. And we made aisles here, too, like this.”
This is what it looked like, just two hours after halting the arrival of the trucks.
Nobuyuki also laid down three rules.
“First, I designated an area for receiving inbound supplies. I also designated an area for outbound supplies. Supplies were gathered here for people waiting to distribute them, and they were loaded onto trucks here to be shipped out. This was the first rule.
I also designated storage areas for different types of supplies.
I asked for strict adherence to the rules. The most important thing was that we would accept supplies until 5 P.M. After that, I asked everyone to make preparations for the following day, so that everything would be ready for loading on to the trucks first thing in the morning for immediate delivery to the waiting people.”
The work flow changed dramatically the following day.
Self Defense Forces personnel sorted out all the supplies, and carriers delivered them to the shelters.
Supplies that had previously simply continued accumulating could now be delivered smoothly overnight.
Up to then, deliveries to shelters had only been possible once a day, but now they were increased to three times a day.
The areas that had been hit hard by the disaster were all having difficulty handling the huge quantity of supplies. But one warehouse won high appraisal as an ideal example of what to do in a disaster because it quickly established itself as a distribution hub.
The warehouse was not located in one of the coastal towns struck by the disaster, but around 70 kilometers inland, near Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture.
It was the Iwate Industry, Culture & Convention Center, Apio, which has good access from the expressway. This facility, normally used for concerts and exhibitions, became the hub for distributing supplies to the cities of Miyako and Kamaishi on the coast.
Large trucks that had brought supplies from all over the country could drive right into the heart of the facility.
Here, Forklifts could be used to unload and load relief supplies.
Around 700 tons of supplies arrived every day. They were stored in a circular pattern radiating out from the center, with frequently dispatched goods such as food placed closer to the center where supplies were unloaded and loaded.
Kozo Sato of the Iwate Trucking Association was in charge of managing and organizing the distribution of supplies at that time.
Kozo had organized the delivery of supplies from Iwate Prefecture to regions struck by the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake 10 years ago. So he was familiar with the confusion that followed disasters.
“In Niigata, for example, we’d arrive in the morning, but there wouldn’t be any warehouses or people to take the stuff. We couldn’t unload, even in the afternoon. That’s what we sometimes experienced. This time, we were on the receiving end, so I knew what to expect. I figured that using that facility would allow the most smooth and efficient operations.”
(Kozo Sato: Iwate Trucking Association)
Kozo was also quick to organize personnel. Around 200 staff members worked around the clock in three shifts.
The transport system established was extremely efficient, and that is how they were able to deliver a constant stream of supplies to the devastated coastal areas.
The warehouse in Kesennuma City was in the care of a private carrier company.
Despite having tidied up the warehouse, they faced huge problems delivering supplies to shelters.
There were around 100 shelters in Kesennuma City, but the supply routes to many of them were cut off.
Kazuya Sasaki was one of the company’s drivers at that time.
“On this map of Kesennuma City, the area marked in blue was inundated by the tsunami. I heard that it was all covered in rubble after the water receded.”
“Yes. We went around figuring out which roads were passable and which weren’t.”
(Kazuya Sasaki: Truck driver)
“Which roads were impassable?”
“Basically those in the inundated area. This area in particular would be submerged in the afternoon at high tide, making it impassable.”
Due to the earthquake, the ground had subsided by as much as one meter, which meant the coastal roads were flooded every high tide and became impassable.
“There were many shelters nearby, right?”
“Yes. Getting to them required going the wrong way down one-way streets, for example.”
Another problem faced by the truck drivers was the rubble left behind by the tsunami.
One of the shelters Kazuya delivered supplies to was the Civic Center up on a hill.
The narrow road leading up to it was blocked by piles of rubble.
“We asked the Self Defense Forces personnel to remove the rubble, but there was still only space to let one vehicle through.”
“It's like that even now.”
“Yes. It was even narrower than it is now, and there was a mountain of rubble. It was really dangerous, but I used it because it was the shortest route.”
From ten days after the earthquake, city officials, Self Defense Forces personnel and carrier staff started holding a meeting every day to share information on where roads which were crucial for the delivery of supplies, so that the Self Defense Forces could clear away the rubble.
Everyone in Kesennuma joined forces to overcome the difficulties. They put their hearts and souls into delivering supplies as quickly as possible to the people who needed them.
One month after the earthquake, the warehouse had undergone dramatic changes.
The supplies had initially been sorted into general categories.
But gradually they were divided more meticulously into finer categories.
The needs of people at shelters changed the longer they stayed. So the warehouse staff asked them what they needed most, and supplies were delivered to satisfy those individual needs.
Frequently dispatched goods such as food and water were placed closer to the warehouse exit.
A sufficient number of the floor mats needed at shelters such as gymnasiums had already been distributed, so those that were left were stored at the back of the warehouse.
And once items like hand gel, soap and shampoo had been distributed, further supplies would not be needed for a while. So they, too, were stored at the back.
Shinichi Mito was in charge of managing the inventory and preparing the supplies for dispatching to the shelters at that time.
He did his best to pay attention to detail to make the best use of the relief supplies coming in from all over the country.
“For example, in the case of the toothbrushes, there were hard and soft types, and also those for children. So I did my best to sort them into as many categories as possible.”
(Shinichi Mito: Staff)
“You tried to meet the needs of every individual?”
“Yes. I took requests from people at shelters just in case, and did my best to meet their needs, even those of individuals.”
“Even for one toothbrush?”
“Of a desired stiffness?”
“Yes, if they asked.”
The warehouse staff did their best to meet the smallest needs of every individual.
“How did you sort everything out?”
“We’d open all the boxes if we didn’t know what was inside. If we found toothbrushes, we’d take them to the toothbrush corner, clothes to the clothes corner, and so on. We’d check everything with our own eyes and hands.”
“Did you record the whole inventory?”
“Yes. At first by hand, then on our PCs, once they were up and running.”
This is a list of the inventory one month after the earthquake.
All the items in the huge quantities of supplies were counted and listed.
Diapers were divided by size, from those for children to those for adults.
Batteries too, were sorted and managed according to size.
There were 372 varieties of goods at the warehouse at the time, totaling 490,000 items. The inventory was counted every day by the personnel to check for items that were in short supply.
As they did this, they realized there was a problem: they had to open every box to check what was inside.
“Sending only one type of item at a time makes supplies easier to manage. Another thing is to write the contents of boxes clearly on the outside. Doing this also makes supply management easier.”
There were also supplies that unfortunately could not be made full use of for various reasons.
“We had lots of stoves, but there was very little need for them.”
“Even though you had many? Why?”
“We had no gas or anything at the time. In other words, no fuel. Not even much electricity. So supply overtook demand.”
“You had potatoes, too.”
“Yes. We distributed them to places that had cooking facilities, so we knew they could cook them.”
“Some places had no cooking facilities.”
“That’s right. So we had to identify suitable facilities to send them.”
The item of which they had the greatest surplus was toothbrushes. They had 150,000 left over. People all over the country had sent them considering the prolonged stay of evacuees at shelters.
But one toothbrush can last for a long time. They do not need to be handed out so often.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, there were various discrepancies between what was really needed at shelters, and the supplies that were actually sent to each region. If a similar disaster should strike again sometime in the future, major issues will be how people can cooperate amidst the confusion in the disaster-stricken areas, and how the necessary supplies can be sent to those places.
Two months after the earthquake, the Self Defense Forces had already left, and the carriers were able to return to their normal operations.
Local residents took over the job of managing supplies and delivering them to shelters. 80 victims of the disaster who had lost their jobs were hired. None of them were experienced, but they were supervised by professional staff.
Naoto Yoshida, Nobuko Shirahata and Makoto Hatakeyama all worked at the warehouse in that period.
All three had had their workplaces washed away by the tsunami. But it was not simply for economic reasons that they decided to start working so soon.
“We just worked frantically. I had lost my house and I had various things to sort out, but a part of me wanted to forget all about my troubles. So I just concentrated on working like crazy. It helped me forget my worries.”
“It was difficult at times. Frankly speaking, I sometimes asked myself why I was working, because I was a victim, too. But as I worked every day and communicated with everyone, I got to enjoy the work.”
Keeping on the move and concentrating on their work helped them to forget their worries, even if only temporarily. The participants ranged in age from teenagers to those in their 60s. Strong bonds formed between complete strangers. They supported one another and fulfilled their mission until January 2012, when the fruit and vegetable market’s role as a warehouse for relief supplies came to an end.
“The time spent at work was really…perhaps I shouldn’t use the word ‘fun’, but... Anyway, it was really rewarding.”
“It was really about friendship. I formed close bonds with other people as a result of meeting everyone at the market after the disaster.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to handle the work if it hadn’t been for everyone’s friendship. The job finished on January 15, and we held a party that night. We were all sad about going our separate ways, and maybe never meeting again. So I keep in contact with everyone, and we get together and go out drinking even now.”
The people who worked together to collect and dispatch supplies continue to get together once a month to give each other encouragement.
The Great East Japan Earthquake caused catastrophic damage across an area stretching over 500 kilometers from north to south.
Morley’s report has highlighted both the difficulties and the importance of proper management and delivery of relief supplies after the disaster.
“Almost immediately after the tsunami struck, a dedicated team of professionals went into action. They organized and executed a relief effort of unprecedented scale. It was only through professional planning and management that such an enormous operation could be realized. And at the end of the supply chain, there were dedicated drivers. They went to work with a sense of mission. This was their way to help rebuild their communities.”
The local government, Self Defense Forces and victims of the 3.11 disaster joined forces in facing and overcoming great difficulties, guided by the knowhow of logistics professionals. But the establishment of logistics systems that can stand up to the test of future disasters remains a vital issue.