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  • Annie Mellan

The Arc of Disaster

In the Riias Arc Museum of Art overlooking the city of Kessenuma, Japan, there is an exhibit dedicated not to beauty but to devastation. Curator Yamauchi and other local artists photographed the heart-wrenching scenes around the mid-zed fishing town of Kesennuma following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Cars and boats stacked on crumbling buildings, whole neighborhoods flattened, heaps of possessions swept away by tsunami. The end of the exhibit contains a different collection of works; a series of paintings made over 100 years ago depicting an identical scene. The Meiji Tsunami of 1896 struck the same coastline, destroying the same towns. The paintings show crumpled bodies being carried through broken streets. They were created as an act of remembrance and as a warning to future generations. Our contemporary collective memory fails us. When disaster strikes, the urge to quickly rebuild the status quo is strong. We end up reliving that which our ancestors warned of.

In November 2018, a wildfire swept through our hometown of Paradise, California. Fourteen thousand homes burned within just a few hours, shocking residents and firefighters alike. The “Camp Fire” was the worst fire in California history and yet not the first time this land had burned. Paradise is located within an ecological system that evolved with fire and recent widespread practices of fire suppression have increased the risk of major fire events. In addition rains that would be expected by October did not come until mid November. Record-breaking heat waves during the summer wrung every bit of moisture out of the land. There is no doubt man-made climate change had a large role in the Camp Fire. Many of our neighbors are scrambling to rebuild the same flammable houses, eager to put distance between themselves and the disaster. But if we choose to continue to live in fire-prone areas, we must learn how to mitigate and respond to disaster.


The coastal communities of northeastern Japan are in their 8th year since the tsunami. Some are still struggling to recover their industry, population, and culture. Others are thriving and even managing to attract new residents and entrepreneurs. The port town of Onagawa was 90% destroyed and suffered one the greatest loss of life per capita. In their rebuilding process, Onagawa residents are acknowledging the reality of their past as they intentionally build their future. They are honoring their community’s loss by rebuilding wisely, proactively. Community-designed measures such as raising low-lying land and relocating all residences to high ground aim to prevent the large-scale destruction seen in 2011. In contrast, a nearby town of similar size has erected a 50 ft concrete wall along their waterfront and has seen a staggering low resident return rate.


The story of Onagawa epitomizes the idea that the future belongs to the resilient; those who can see a fertile ground rather than merely a gaping hole. Opportunity not only loss. The residents saw the opportunity to build a safer, more connected, more economically fruitful town. The momentum and excitement towards a brighter future has been contagious, strengthening relationships and the sense of comradery as they co-create a shared vision for the future. One native, Yusuke Kimura found his contribution to the rebuilding: Garu Beer Bar is located along the newly completed downtown shopping plaza and serves as a gathering place for residents of all ages. Onagawa also has a community center and a co-working space constructed from shipping containers.

Eight years and the people in Onagawa feel that they ‘just beginning’. Recovery is not a destination but a continual process of growth and rebirth. A community is a living, changing entity. The devastating tsunami and the process of building a new town has woven the people of Onagawa together in an unshakable camaraderie. For the displaced folks in Paradise, the people of Onagawa offered a message of hope, perseverance and unity.


Still one year into its recovery, Paradise is still an evolving story. How can we accept the reality of our precarious relationship with fire? Not merely rebuilding what was but reaching for what’s possible? By shifting the way we build and consume, by moving slowly, selectively, and intentionally we can become active agents in creating our future. If we outsource the recovery of Paradise we are missing the opportunity to design our own future. We have opportunity, not only loss: the physical rebuilding process serves as a means for us to come together, which rebuilds our relationships, which define the strength of our community. Our relationships are our greatest insurance policy, and will prove invaluable in the uncertain future.



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