Opportunity in Chaos

Rebuilding After the 1994 Northridge and 1995
Kobe Earthquakes

Robert B. Olshansky, Laurie A. Johnson, and Kenneth C. Topping

with Yoshiteru Murosaki, Kazuyoshi Ohnishi, Hisako Koura, and Ikuo Kobayashi

2005 (Web-published: March 2011)

Download the Report PDF (15mb)


Note: This research study was initially completed in 2005. The pdf version was produced in March 2011. Although our understanding of post-disaster recovery has greatly expanded based on our research of Hurricane Katrina and other subsequent events, the findings from this study focus on what we learned in Kobe and Los Angeles, and they are consistent with our current knowledge. We are glad to be able to make this report more widely available following the March 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster.


The January 17 Earthquakes


Shortly before dawn on January 17, 1994, the Magnitude 6.7 Northridge Earthquake struck the Los Angeles region in southern California. This was the largest quake to be experienced in the Los Angeles region since a Magnitude 6.6 quake hit the community of San Fernando in 1971 As a result of the Northridge Earthquake 57 people died, 20,000 were left homeless, and approximately 100,000 housing units were damaged and needed repair.

Exactly one year later, shortly before dawn on January 17, 1995, a Magnitude 6.9 (Mw 6.9, or Ms7.3) earthquake struck the Kansai region of Japan's main island of Honshu. Losses from the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake were truly immense. In all, over 6,400 people were killed and 40,000 injured. Fires consumed 82 hectares (203 acres) of urban land, and more than 400,000 buildings were damaged, of which 100,000 collapsed completely. Nearly 450,000 housing units were either partially or completely destroyed, and 85 percent of the region's schools, many hospitals, Kobe's city hall, and other major public facilities sustained heavy damage.

These two earthquakes were significant at the time in being the largest earthquakes to strike modern, industrialized metropolitan areas. The Northridge earthquake foreshadowed in the United States the potential effects of a major earthquake on the San Andreas or Hayward faults, Cascadia subduction zone, or Wasatch Front. The Hanshin-Awaji earthquake provided opportunities to observe greatly enlarged earthquake impacts on a metropolitan scale, and the Japanese experience suggests what might happen in the event of a catastrophic urban earthquake in the U.S.

The Kobe-Northridge Study


This study was prompted by the need to think about the recovery planning process following a catastrophic urban earthquake somewhere in the U.S. Such an event is completely unfamiliar to modern American disaster experience.

This study sought to understand the local and individual planning and reconstruction decisions following these two earthquakes, set within the larger context of regional and national policies. For each earthquake, the report begins with a detailed overview of the national, regional, and local recovery policies and programs. It then describes, on multiple levels, the reconstruction progress and planning decisions for four urban districts in Japan and three urban districts in the U.S.

The January 17th earthquakes of 1994 and 1995 provide a rare opportunity to help to imagine a catastrophic U.S. earthquake. The Kobe earthquake of 1995 shows the effects of a catastrophic earthquake on a city in a highly developed economy, and it demonstrates how a wealthy, democratic society can go about recovering from such an event. The Northridge earthquake, though not nearly as catastrophic, provides valuable information about how the U.S. emergency management system responds to a very large earthquake event. Added together, these two earthquakes provide an illuminating glimpse at what could happen in a future U.S. earthquake: from the U.S. perspective, we can think of it as viewing Kobe through the lens of Northridge.

More importantly, studies of these two events can provide lessons for planners and policy makers, both as they prepare for a catastrophic earthquake and when, inevitably, they must plan for the recovery following such an event. In addition to the U.S. concerns of this study, we also believe this research can provide lessons for future earthquakes in Japan as well as for other developed nations.

This study was funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF Award #9730137). In addition, a critical part of our study was our close collaboration with four Japanese researchers knowledgeable about post-earthquake planning in the Kobe area. The Japanese team was led by Dr. Yoshiteru Murosaki, Professor, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering of Kobe. The Japan team also included: Dr. Kazuyoshi Ohnishi, Associate Professor, Division of Architecture and Regional Safety Design, Kobe University; Dr. Hisako Koura, Associate Professor, Dept. of Architectural Engineering, Osaka University; and Mr. Ikuo Kobayashi, President, Cooperative Planners Associates, Kobe. The research in Japan would not have been possible without the enormous logistical help, data, research, cultural knowledge, and painstaking translation efforts of the Japanese team members. We would also like to acknowledge the continued assistance and guidance over the past 15 years of Dr. Haruo Hayashi, Professor, Center for Research in Disaster Reduction Systems, Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University