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Unbreakable: Building disaster-proof cities

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
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Japan's disaster-proof city
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ten months after the Haiti earthquake, there's been little progress on the rebuilding front
  • The rebuilding of Kobe, Japan, following a similarly devastating earthquake in 1995 could be instructive for Haiti
  • Currently half of the world's population lives in cities -- a figure expected to skyrocket in the coming decades

Kobe, Japan (CNN) -- When I look back on the year 2010, I will remember spending so much of the year in disaster zones. Between Haiti and Pakistan alone, I spent months on the ground seeing firsthand the aftermath of an earthquake and floods.

So much of the discussion in Haiti now is about rebuilding. Yet even 10 months later, plans seem poorly drawn out and little progress has been made. No doubt it is a monumental task, but whenever I speak to experts, they tell me it is worth evaluating the lessons learned in Kobe, Japan.

In 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit the port city and lasted 20 seconds. In that short period, 200,000 buildings were destroyed and nearly 5,500 lives lost. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

At the time Kobe was cited as an example of "urban planning focusing on convenience, efficiency and growth while neglecting safety and security." The question facing officials in Kobe at that time -- is the same one officials in Port-au-Prince are asking. Can we rebuild a city quickly that is also safer than the one that was destroyed?

The challenge now for cities like Port-au-Prince is not to just rebuild as safely and expeditiously as possible -- but to create a city that is safer than the one before the earthquake.
--Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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I decided to travel to Kobe to see for myself. After being on the ground, the answer seems to be "yes." It took 10 years to rebuild here, which is relatively speedy by international standards. More importantly, the new buildings are "disasterproof," using techniques to isolate the building from the shaking ground during an earthquake.

The construction itself relies on metal plates and special materials to allow movement of the building and to prevent collapse. There has also been a significant investment in the ecosystem, which can provide natural buffers to mitigate floods and storm surges.

Another lesson was to decentralize critical urban functions, including hospitals, so that an entire critical response sector would not be eliminated during a natural disaster. And, throughout all of this, the survivors of the earthquake were placed at the center of reconstruction to help design the new communities on which they would be dependent.

As things stand now, half the world's population lives in cities, and that number is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades. It is called urbanization, and health organizations all over the world, including the World Health Organization, have taken notice. Because of the dense population and significant building construction, urban areas are the most vulnerable to natural disasters.

The challenge now for cities like Port-au-Prince is not to just rebuild as safely and expeditiously as possible -- but to create a city that is safer than the one before the earthquake. Here in Kobe, there is proof that it can be done.