Sun, Apr 05, 2015 - Page 14 News List

UN disaster expo shows innovative Japanese industry

By Elaine Kurtenbach  /  AP, SENDAI, Japan

Mankind is powerless to prevent calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes, but in Japan, where the devastating 2011 tsunami still looms large, there is a flourishing industry in devising ways to cope with catastrophe.

Some of the products on display at an exhibition on the sidelines of a recent UN disaster conference in the northeastern city of Sendai featured high-tech innovations and new materials, but many were just inventive, practical solutions for challenges such as quickly getting people out of harm’s way.

Products like Masayoshi Nakamura’s “Jinriki” — custom-made handles designed for easily hustling wheelchairs over debris and up hills.

“I just wanted to do something to help,” said Nakamura, jumping into a wheelchair as he urged a visitor to give it a try.

The snap-on and screw-on handles, which turn a wheelchair into a modern version of a “rickshaw” like the ones seen in old movies, enable a person to push or pull a wheelchair over sand and snow, up and down stairs, with relative ease.

Nakamura knew from early on that pushing a wheelchair can be hard work, having often pushed his disabled brother around as they played with friends as children. He thought up the idea for the Jinriki while working on a tourism-related project, but was only able to turn it into a reality after the March 2011 disasters.

Being able to quickly escape to higher ground was a life-or-death matter when a tsunami up to 40m high thrashed Japan’s northeastern coast, including Sendai’s port and coastal suburbs, killing more than 18,500 people.

Many of the elderly people living in Japan’s seaside villages could not escape in time. Pioneer Seiko Co’s people-carrier frame, something of a cross between a toddler backpack and an adult-sized chair, can be used by an adult to carry another adult on his or her back.

Exact figures on disaster-related spending and manufacturing are hard to come by. The market spans both government and private spending, and includes an entire universe of goods ranging from tarps and water containers to sophisticated early-warning systems for tsunamis and typhoons.

Globally, disaster-related spending is on the rise as losses from weather-related catastrophes surge. Heeding estimates showing that US$1 spending on prevention can yield up to US$36 in savings from losses, from 2012 to last year, the World Bank allocated US$1.4 billion on preparedness, nearly half the US$3 billion committed to post-disaster rebuilding.

Takahisa Kishimoto of Teijin Frontier Co, a subsidiary of textiles giant Teijin, was peddling a blanket with hand-holes that can be used to haul an injured person out of a disaster zone when a stretcher is not handy.

Many of the exhibitors in Sendai traveled from Osaka, like Takashi Torano, a disaster expert at Fujiwara Industry Co, a maker of tsunami escape towers, among many other types of disaster equipment.

Fujiwara also makes beds fitted with overhead steel slats to shield up to three adults from falling debris.

“The idea is to create a safe space in the home,” Torano said.

Other offerings included an emergency kit for helping extricate people from collapsed houses, and hard-hats designed to look like baseball caps.

“You can walk around town and not have to worry about a quake knocking something onto your head,” Torano said.

On a larger scale, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Products Co and contractor Shimizu Corp have developed an “anti-seismic surgical floor” to keep operating tables steady in case of a quake.

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