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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Kobe rebirth testament to human resilience

By Susan Kreifels

The woman picked through the ashes surrounding her. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but ashes and people scattered among them, stumbling through what was once their homes, their faces sharing that shell-shocked look.

A woman sat, dazed, in the wreckage of her house in Kobe, Japan, on Jan. 18, 1995, a day after an earthquake devastated the port city of 1.4 million people. More than 6,000 people lost their lives.

Associated Press library photo • Jan. 18, 1995

She held in her hand what appeared to be a piece of silvery metal, shiny, thin and about 2 inches long, with three short, globby arms sticking out the sides. Pieces of black cinder were embedded in it.

She handed it to me. And then she told me her story.

I met her in January 1995, in Kobe, Japan, days after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake shook the city and killed close to 6,500 people. She had felt lucky — her business and home had withstood the quake, and no one in her family had been lost or injured. Some neighbors had been trapped in their homes, but they yelled out that they were OK. They all waited for help to arrive.

But the fires came first.

Japanese know that one of the greatest dangers of an earthquake are the gas pipelines that burst and the fires that can race through neighborhoods. Her trapped neighbors survived the quake but not the fire. Like surviving an earthquake and then being washed away by a giant wave.

The glob of metal in my hand had once been a stack of Japanese yen coins in her living room that had melted in the intense heat. She told me I could keep it. Ten years later and still shiny, it has its own place in my office.

Whenever I look at it, it reminds me of the power of nature, the powerlessness of humans and the terrible disasters that can happen anywhere — from the least-developed and poorest countries to the most advanced and wealthiest.

Many times in the past three weeks, as I have watched the images of people wandering down tsunami-pummeled beaches, I've thought about Kobe. The same shell-shocked faces, the thousands of bodies.

It hadn't seemed possible that such massive death and destruction could happen in a high-tech, wealthy nation like Japan. Nor did it seem possible that an earthquake in the Indian Ocean could wreak such destruction, kill so many people in so many places.

Marking the 10th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake, disaster managers gathered there last week for the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. Its objective of making a safer world for all holds such great significance in the wake of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. Japanese officials at the conference shared the lessons they learned a decade ago.

The Kobe earthquake was the most deadly disaster I had ever covered. I arrived there on Jan. 19, the second day after the earthquake hit, walking miles into the city because public transportation had shut down and main roads were jammed. It was cold, and people huddled in the middle of streets around open campfires, staying safe distances from homes and buildings that continued to wobble.

Victims were being pulled from mangled structures. I watched people risk their lives to try to rescue neighbors. At one home, they had been too late, and they carried out a lifeless body. But others emerged with a barking bundle, and in the midst of death, there was great joy in the preservation of a pet's life.

I talked with teenagers in school shelters who had lost their parents, not knowing what their futures would be, let alone how they would fill their next day.

Sometimes small things stand out most. It struck me as odd that late at night on a neighborhood street corner, although there was not a vehicle to be seen, a group of Japanese stood waiting for a red light to turn green. Maybe they found comfort in following that small routine when most of life's daily familiarities had completely vanished.

Officials didn't know what to do with the thousands of bodies. It was cold, keeping the smell of death light that night. One large school gymnasium was filled with rows of bodies. I gasped when I saw an arm swing up in the middle of the gym. Kobe residents standing beside me said it was a living body lying next to a dead one, a small wake for a loved one in the midst of the grimmest of scenes.

Kobe residents complained to reporters of slow rescue and relief efforts. As these stories reached the international community, people around the world quickly offered help, as we have seen in the global generosity shown to tsunami victims in past weeks.

I returned to Kobe twice before leaving Japan. The city had started to rebuild, the people to put their lives back together. It struck me then, as it so often has when returning to a story that has been filled with pain and tragedy, how resilient people are. How they pick up what's left, put it back together the best they can.

Like that piece of melted silver, what remains may take on a different look, but it's still strong, enduring, maintaining its shine.

Susan Kreifels is the media services coordinator at the East-West Center. She was based in Asia for eight years as a reporter. She wrote this article for The Advertiser.