The Triple Disaster Part 2: A Corporate Perspective on Managing a Crisis

This is part two in a series about the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster in Japan.

Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Japan

In Part 1 of my earthquake blog, I wrote about the events that led up to the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan.  In this blog post, I’ll talk a little more about the days immediately following March 11th, from the perspective of a multinational corporation trying to get a grip on what the natural disaster meant for the company, for its employees and their families, and for us individually as residents and citizens of Japan.

Throughout and after the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, I had a chance to learn about how different multinational companies responded to the crisis, but I never really had that much of a view of large local Japanese companies.  There is still a pretty big cultural gap between foreign company culture and Japanese company culture, and that world is still quite opaque to me.

March 11th happened just when we were getting a new country executive who had not yet arrived in Japan, and my boss, the chief executive of the Asia financial business based in Tokyo, had been in his job only 3 days.  We had no corporate security and crisis management function in country, and our nearest resource was in Indonesia.

Our nuclear fuels division had 40 American engineers at the Fukushima plant on the day of the disaster.  They were retrofitting Reactor No. 4, and had spent several months removing all the fuel from the reactor and working on various maintenance programs.  While they had evacuated the plant shortly after the earthquake and before the tsunami hit it, they were stuck in Fukushima, without the knowledge and language skills to get out.

While the Tohoku region of Japan is not very industrialized, we did have a number of smaller operations in the area, including some financial branch locations, real estate investments, and healthcare customer service centers.  Japan is also famous for its precision engineering, and we had several suppliers in the area who provided critical parts for our jet engine business.

In the first 48 hours of the crisis, all our businesses worked independently to locate their employees and find out the status of their families.  In the immediate aftermath, we discovered that several of our employees had lost their entire families to the tsunami, and nearly every employee based in the region had family affected by loss of life and homes.  Our healthcare service center in Sendai was damaged beyond repair by the earthquake, but thankfully no one was injured.

Very shortly after those first 48 hours, I volunteered to assist our corporate crisis management team coordinate our company’s response.  We were flying in our regional security director from Indonesia, and our CEO was coming from the U.S.  At first, I didn’t get any response to my offer to assist.  It wasn’t until the regional security director arrived that he demanded my assistance.  From then on, we worked as partners to support all the different functions and coordinate a response across the whole company.

Here are some of the key things we did in the first days up to several weeks after the earthquake, and while the nuclear plants were experiencing meltdowns:

  • Get the 40 American engineers evacuated from Fukushima and headed home
  • Account for every company employee in the region on a daily basis, including finding new housing for those whose homes had been destroyed.  In those first hours, we tracked the Japanese government’s evacuation orders and American embassy recommendations very closely, ensuring that we were staying a step ahead by moving all affected employees before the government orders.
  • Start all the insurance data gathering and reporting.
  • Evacuate those employees who were in Japan on expatriate contracts.  It was a funny twist, but those contracts required that the company evacuate expatriates under certain conditions of civil unrest or natural disaster.  It meant that we created two classes of employees, those who were executives on expatriate contracts, and the local employees and foreigners who were local hires and who could not be feasibly evacuated.
  • Put together procedures to get our employees into the nuclear exclusion zone so that we could help hospitals get their equipment back on line and our suppliers recover their operations.
  • Create a backup location from scratch at a branch office in Osaka, where we could move all the company’s critical functions in the event that Tokyo became too unstable.
  • Track and analyze all the developments with the triple crisis.  About a week into the crisis, I created a matrix of possible events and responses that we would implement, just to give ourselves some guidance as conditions changed.  I quickly researched nuclear accidents and was able to predict some of the most likely scenarios, even though we were dealing with an unprecedented scale of disaster.
  • Write emergency plans for the situation at hand.  I quickly wrote plans for emergency response operations, medical monitoring, for employees sheltering in place, and for re-entering the exclusion zone with proper monitoring and recordkeeping.  I knew that crisis had been going on too long when I received an email one morning from a colleague suggesting that I might find the attached medical monitoring plan helpful.  Opening the attachment, I discovered my own plan, written just a week earlier!
  • Conduct a lot of health and safety monitoring and data collection.  Within a few weeks, there was so much data that I engaged a consultant to track all the government websites and news sources to pull and compile data for me.  We ended up having them conduct health and safety tracking for a full year after the disaster so that we could communicate that data efficiently to our employees and visitors.

Throughout the crisis, we also focused on keeping a very low profile with respect to being the Japanese operations of the company that had designed and built the nuclear reactors that were melting down.  Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima plant, was a major client of our power business, and there was a whole crisis management center in Wilmington, North Carolina managing the company’s messaging and reputation with respect to its nuclear business.  Our job was to stay beneath the radar and to manage our company’s operations responsibly without one bit of public notice.  It was a delicate balancing act, and I have the utmost respect for our county executive for achieving that balance day after day after day.

On a personal note, the effort to manage this crisis was extremely difficult to sustain over the long period of time we had to stay in crisis mode -- about one month.  Initially, my children stayed with me in Tokyo, and coincidentally our visas were being renewed during that first week and our passports got caught in a huge rush of visa requests from foreigners who wanted to leave Japan temporarily but first needed re-entry permits.  After the first week, and during a time when the situation with the reactors in Fukushima seemed very uncertain, my country executive asked me to relocate to Osaka with my children.  With only a few hours notice, we drove from Tokyo to Osaka and were squeezed into a very small hotel room while our dog was boarded at a tiny pet hotel nearby.  This proved to be a very difficult situation for my children, so after a few days I sent them to Hawaii to stay with relatives, and I continued working 20-hour days managing the crisis.  My daily visits to take my dog for a walk provided much needed mental rejuvenation, and together we got to know the streets and parks of central Osaka.

During my second day in Osaka, I unwittingly came across an elderly homeless man just as he committed suicide, and for a brief time I felt that the world would never be right again.  It really brought home to me the human tragedy that was unfolding outside the walls of my makeshift crisis management center.  The memories of those few seconds before he jumped from the bridge, along with the scenes of Tokyo’s streets in darkness and the crush of people trying to leave Narita Airport seem to have indelibly marked my experience of Japan.