Culture, No.7  Sept. 25, 2011


After the earthquake disaster, the first thing I wanted was light.” (Sato Shinichi, Director of General Affairs, Saito Hospital) “When the lights went on at home, I felt gratitude from the bottom of my heart.” (A woman living in the city) “The lights dispelled the anxiety that people were experiencing.” (Kimura Shin, Head of Disaster Countermeasures Office, Ishinomaki City)

Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture. When I came here on April 21 to research this story, I met many people who were happy that the rays of hope that light up people’s lives were making a comeback in their day-to-day lives.

At the time of the disaster, a total of 4.86 million households lost power in the area under the jurisdiction of Tohoku Electric Power Company. The scale is 7 times that of the Miyagi-Oki Earthquake of 1978.

In order to deliver power to users, a variety of electrical equipment is necessary to start with. For example, the power lines and the supporting pylons to deliver electricity generated at power stations to the point of consumption, the transformer stations that lower the voltage, and the distribution lines that deliver power to households and factories. On this occasion, three power stations including the Sendai Thermal Power Station were damaged by the tsunami. Also, 42 pylons were destroyed, fractured or knocked sideways, equipment was damaged at 57 transformer stations, power cables were disconnected and insulators severed in 22 locations, and approximately 22,000 utility poles were snapped or knocked sideways. However, twenty days after the disaster, power had been restored to approximately 4.68 million households. As of May 6, 99% have had power restored. I followed in the tracks of the recovery work by Tohoku Electric Power.
Photo : Recovery work
It is impossible to miss the
activities of Yurtec,
making repairs to the
power supply. ?WEDGE

Field crews were working with methods of communication were severed

“It’s a magnitude 7!” The Disaster Prevention and Crisis Management Group at the General Affairs Section on the 4th floor of the headquarters for Tohoku Electric Power Company in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. Immediately after the earthquake at 2:46 pm on March 11, Asagi Masataka, Deputy Head of the Group looked at the news flash sent to the email address for his mobile phone and yelled out in a loud voice. The Section Manager for the Group, Hashiura Yoshiaki immediately rushed to the disaster prevention head office on the 6th floor where the communications equipment and the video conferencing systems are installed. Next, the emergency disaster prevention headquarters were set up with the company president, Kaiwa Makoto, at the helm, and by 3:20 pm the crisis meetings had begun. However, even as they tried to gather information, their lines of communication were interrupted. Fortunately, they were able to use some of the in-house dedicated lines, but they were not able to make contact with some of the service offices where communications had been cut off. By sunset, they had not made the hoped-for progress in the work to understand the whole extent of damages.

However, even under such difficult circumstances, the people in the field were moving steadily toward restoring services.

In this disaster, power lines delivering electricity to households and factories, and power distribution installations such as utility poles, in particular, sustained major damage. “On the day, we were not able to verify the situation with power distribution installations due to the impact of the aftershocks and the tsunami. These vexing circumstances continued.” This is how Obara Takeyoshi, General Affairs Section Manager at the Ishinomaki Office in charge of maintaining and repairing power distribution installations, recalls the day of the earthquake. Due to the impact of the earthquake, all 126,000 households that are the responsibility of this office were faced with the realities of a power cut. Even at the office, the means of communication were severed. The radio was the only means of gathering information. One staff member at the office, Yamaguchi Soichiro, was away from the office at the time of the earthquake, and unable to return there, he spent the night at an emergency shelter. “I told everyone at the shelter that if they waited three days, the power would be restored, and to hold out. The words lingered long in my ears. There are people waiting for electricity. I committed myself to restoring power without further delay.” (Yamaguchi)

Photo : Tohoku Electric Power2
Shigeyoshi substation. Completing
temporary pylons. ?WEDGE

As of 5 am the next day, the staff at the service office started the work of verifying and restoring power distribution installations. Some teams were even using rubber dinghies to verify the situation. The main premise was to develop an understanding of the situation involving utility poles and power lines. In some places, rubble was obstructing the way and crews did not progress as expected, but thanks to the efforts of the staff who had no sleep or rest, the day after the earthquake, they had completed preparations to deliver power to some local households.

However, since it was possible that indoor electrical installations submerged in the tsunami might short-circuit and cause fires, it was necessary to meet with the householder to supply power. Because of the extensive damage, it was not possible to provide adequate coverage with 84 members of staff. At this point, high-powered assistance came from the people on the reinforcement teams. At the time of an emergency like this one, branch offices in other prefectures are able to dispatch teams to the disaster area at their own discretion. Of course, to avoid having the reinforcement teams concentrated in certain areas, the dispatching office and the head office make adjustments between them.

Photo : Tohoku Electric Power3
For the time being, a mobile
transformer carries out the
functions of the substation.

On this occasion, the Niigata branch and other branch offices on the Japan Sea secured the required workforce in the course of this day. They organized the reinforcement teams, rushed to the disaster area all through the night, and gathered at a location close to the Yamoto Interchange on the Sanriku Expressway. From there, they headed toward Ishinomaki and Onagawa-machi. In the Ishinomaki district, there were up to 1,000 staff working as observers and making repairs to restore power, including Yurtec, a Group company repairing power distribution systems. By May 10, power was restored to 98% of facilities, excluding the ones washed out by the tsunami.

Drills are at the root of the confidence between head office and field crews

It would be fair to say that the proprietary Autonomous Reinforcement and Recovery System at the Tohoku Electric Power Company provided some context for the swift recovery. The company took advantage of the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake in October 2004 to introduce and embed the system. It is not only a matter of dispatching the reinforcement teams I mentioned previously. The head office gives the branch offices in the area struck by disaster a free hand to deal with the recovery work, and in order to reduce the burden on the branch offices in the disaster areas, the reinforcement teams are able to carry out the recovery and power supply work at their own discretion in the areas where they have been assigned.

Hashiura comments, “In cases like this, it is rational to trust the people on the ground to make the decisions.” However, such a bold delegation of authority does not come easy unless there is a relationship of trust between the head office and the people in the field. The ingredients that have made this reality include the expertise gained as a result of responding to the large-scale power outages caused by the Chuetsu Earthquake and the Chuetsu-oki Earthquake in 2007, and based on these lessons, designing drills to train ground crews to the point where the work can be left to them with confidence.

Specifically, in addition to the September 1 disaster prevention drills, there are biannual drills organized by the head office, and every department, every branch office and every field crew repeatedly do basic drills on understanding the situation and recovery work at the time of a power outage. Assuming a large-scale power outage, the Power Supply Department also dispatches staff from other prefectures and conducts drills as if the situation were for real.

Since 2009, the company has also incorporated drills based on the assumption of damage caused by a tsunami. On this occasion, workers at the Miyako and Kamaishi offices stuck to the drill and evacuated immediately after the earthquake, and after confirming safety, they started the recovery work. Certainly, it can be said that this is the result of the drills.

For example, take the Shigeyoshi transformer substation near the Ishinomaki industrial port. The Ishinomaki Technical Center undertakes maintenance and repairs at this substation. The substation was so seriously damaged by the tsunami that Murakami Seiki, Manager of the Substation Section at the Center says, “The damage was so far beyond imagining, I don’t have the words to describe it.” For a period of four days after the day of the earthquake disaster, both the head office and the branch office were plunged into a situation where the telephones did not work, and the only means of communication at the Center were radios to communicate with the people in the field. But even though it was not possible to make contact, Murakami and the employees at the Center resolved to stick to the drill and do what they had to do. They verified the equipment at the 24 substations under the jurisdiction of the Center, and collaborated with Yurtec employees to start the recovery work. The effort would be well worth it if they could finish the recovery work without further delay, and they expected to be able to supply power to some factories in late May.

Obara, whom I mentioned above, comments, “At the time of a power outage, it is important that the head office has a correct understanding of the situation on the ground. Thanks to the drills, we were able to calmly proceed with the recovery work even in the case of a large-scale power outage that was beyond any assumption.” In addition, Abe Satoshi at the Ishinomaki Technical Center comments, “What to do at the time of anything abnormal is deeply ingrained in the body. The drills have provided the grounding.”

The same is true for Tohoku Electric Power Company and the Group companies who conduct joint drills. This is what Koyama Akira at the Yurtec Engineering Division had to say, “The foundation for the recovery work was the same even in this case where the damage was so widespread. On the contrary, you can’t do the things you don’t do as a matter of routine.”

Of course, looking toward recovery, there are still challenges ahead. It will take several years to restore services at the Shigeyoshi substation, and in the district that sustained the destructive damage of the tsunami, the work to restore power has not yet started because of the impact of the rubble. At present, the recovery work is done in collaboration with the administration, but there is no avoiding the long, drawn-out battle ahead. However, in the face of unavoidable disasters, the process of recovery at Tohoku Electric Power Company teaches us that by conducting adequate drills and training field crews to the point where they can be entrusted with the work, they will make the best judgment.

Translated from “Shinjite makaserareru genba wo sodateru,” WEDGE, June 2011, pp. 30-31. (Courtesy of WEDGE, Inc.)