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Monday, 11 March 2019
Diary of a disaster: Japan Post records its response to the 2011 earthquake
11.03.2019 - The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and its tsunami were devastating tragedies taking thousands of lives and destroying communities along Japan’s northeastern coastline.
How Japan Post responded to this unprecedented disaster is not only a remarkable achievement, but also a shining example to other postal operators of how to react when confronted with natural disasters. Recently translated into English: A Record of the Great East Japan Earthquake is the story of the postal operator’s timely response and its role in the recovery process.
Striking 43 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of T?hoku at 14:46 (Japanese Standard Time) on Friday 11 March, the offshore earthquake was Japan’s most powerful, and the world’s fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded. A tsunami swiftly followed engulfing Sendai, the capital city of the Miyagi prefecture.
Due to the earthquake the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant closed, but the tsunami later disabled the emergency generators, causing insufficient cooling and a nuclear meltdown. Over 100,000 people were evacuated.
“On the day of the earthquake a warning went out [notifying us] of a major tsunami, so, together with the staff, we locked the post office and evacuated to a four-story hotel directly across the road,” said Yoshitaka Okajima, a postmaster at the Shizugawa Post Office who spoke about his own experience on that terrible day.
According to the National Police Agency there were over 15,000 deaths, more than 6,000 injured and another 2,537 missing. It was estimated in 2018 that 121,778 buildings were listed as collapsed with another 280,926 buildings semi-collapsed, and 699,180 buildings partially damaged. The World Bank estimated that the total cost of the disaster was 235 billion USD, making it history’s most expensive natural disaster.
After the earthquake struck on 11 March, only 583 of the 1,103 post offices and 100 of the 319 contracted post offices in the three T?hoku prefectures were operating. Japan Post and its related affiliates suffered 62 deaths, while 58 post offices and two delivery centres were completely destroyed. Many others were lost to flooding and partial destruction.
The scale of destruction also severely impaired mail delivery. Postal workers faced unsafe houses, torn up roads, and the fact that Japan Post’s cars and motorbikes had been swept away by the tsunami. Mail delivery was also hampered by electricity cuts, the inability to use elevators and the failure of traffic lights forcing delivery drivers to be especially careful. Reacting to the disaster, Japan Post set up mobile post offices in schools and gymnasiums, and also offered delivery from parked postal vehicles.
New arrangements regarding finances were also made for the survivors with postal accounts. These included ordinary deposits at a limit of 200,000 yen per person to victims who had lost their documents, extensions of contract periods by up to nine months so accounts would not be voided, and special payouts of insurance money. A free service was also created for funneling disaster relief funds to those in need.
At post offices and Japan Post Banks in the Tohoku region, between 13 March and 24 April, a total of 65 branches conducted extra services on weekends and national holidays. On 26 April, the first temporary office was opened in Rikuzentakata City, and Ofunato and Kamaishi Post Offices began operating over the counter services and ATMS from 10 June. Three months after the disaster, the number of suspended post offices had decreased to 53 directly managed and 27 contracted post offices.
These actions were evidence of the beginning of a slow road to recovery and the reopening of post offices and delivery centres, but they were also evidence of something much wider: the commitment of Japan Post to the country’s people at a time of desperate need. It did not go unnoticed by the postal operator’s customers.
Yuichi Kikuchi, a postmaster at the Nobiru Post Office spoke about the happiness of the customers when the post office re-opened. “They dropped in before we opened to ask ‘when are you opening,’ and I really felt that the post office is loved by our customers and that they depend on it. We’ll continue to do our best to live up to the reliance they have in us,” he said.