UN World Tsunami Summit 2019

by Paul Balazs


:::United Nations World Tsunami Awareness Summit 2019 in Hokkaido, Japan::: 

September 4 - 12, 2019, Hokkaido, Japan

When we were asked to represent Hawaii and the United States of America 6 months ago at the 4th annual United Nations Tsunami Awareness Summit we had no idea what we were taking on. After a bit of research, we learned that we'd be joining over 500 student representatives from 44 different countries around the world and as far as we knew we'd be the second to represent Hawaii. Our team, which included Kaiser High seniors May Song, Anna Wood and Nicole Iwamasa, and juniors Derya Hanusz-Soguk and Mio Fujimoto spent 6 months planning for the trip, making the necessary preparations so we could make valuable contributions to the conference. In addition to their rigorous IBDP studies, multiple extra-curricular activities, jobs, internships and school responsibilities of which they each have multiple of, they successfully and happily attended to the needs of the summit.


During the months leading up to the Hokkaido conference, the team produced and executed a community-wide survey on tsunami preparedness; filmed a 1 minute video on life in Hawaii, highlighting how susceptible we are to natural disasters; attended lectures and community meetings; pulled knowledge from a variety of local organizations in an effort to expand their scope and understanding of possible disasters and what recovery might look like; and created, memorized and rehearsed an unbelievable presentation, complete with slides, graphs and handouts.


Dozens of meetings and rehearsals throughout the 6 months prior to departure kept us on track and helped us prepare for anything. The work they did prior to leaving for Japan was already a great feat and I was incredibly proud of them and felt evermore blessed and honored to experience this adventure with them even before we lifted off in early September.

kaiser group at airport group preparing for presentation in hotel

In its fourth year of hosting the summit, the Japan government, the Board of Education and the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) sector prepared the trip of a lifetime. Filled with study tours given by students on Okushiri Island who personally felt the direct impact of two terribly devastating tsunamis (1993 and 2011) that took the lives of many of their friends and families, as well as by students at Kutchan Agricultural High School where the village and region's sustainability is routinely tested as it is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity, we were given the opportunity to gain valuable insight into what "preparedness" actually means. These study tours proved to be invaluable to our learning as they included experts in the fields of disaster prevention, community leaders and city governors or mayors, seismologists, and local high school students who shared their own personal connections to their home, their people and their experience with disaster. Anyone that has been affected or has taken on the responsibility of helping to mitigate disaster or provide aid in relief efforts was on board throughout the whole trip to guide our learning. While we had prepared extensively for this summit back at home, it became clear very quickly that learning about Hawaii's prevention plans and being able to share it intelligently with others, while important, made up a very small part of the reason we were here. In fact, while it took us months to prepare for this summit, the truth is that there are still many places -- years after having been struck -- that are still recovering. Through our study tours, guided museum lectures, activities with the locals and discussions with other countries, we learned that disaster preparedness is not just about knowing what supplies your family needs and having a personal action plan. It's about understanding context. Because every community is different and because the world today is different than the world tomorrow, "preparedness" remains a fluid, dynamic and complex concept that must be defined locally and consistently reviewed by entire communities for it to truly be the beacon of hope we need it to be. Being that our surveys and conversations with our local community back in June highlighted a general malaise or ignorance, we immediately felt responsible for absorbing as much as we could about the different ways people around the world prepare, despite the variety of challenges they face.


To paraphrase the words of Anna Wood, who was asked to speak in Okushiri in front of 22 countries of her immediate experience just 2 days after arriving, she said natural disasters should be seen as the great equalizer and we must do all we can to learn from those whose environments, economies, and societies have been deeply affected. 

group on ferry to island tsunami memorial Okashiri Island

In one region near the foothills of Mt. Usu, the people have had such a long history of volcanic eruption, that they've now learned how to "listen" to the mountain and what steps to take once it starts talking. Of course, the skill of being able to listen, also includes being able to communicate that information across disciplines, generations, competence levels and other factors that might hinder the acquisition of knowledge and its application. During one of their more recent seismic events, an entire community made up of over 200 families living in a mainly agricultural town, was able to complete a full evacuation well before their town, home and farms were taken away. While this might be considered a small town with obvious differences that separate us, such as access to resources, technology and general community infrastructure and development, it easily represents one of our neighborhoods back home, full of people we love and places that are extremely important to us and our personal and shared histories. The point is that regardless of where we live the work we do to prepare for disasters must be done by the people in each community and alongside experts in a multitude of fields as well as people who have experience in disaster and recovery. We were beyond grateful for the opportunities to listen and learn from all the amazing individuals doing exceptional work here in Hokkaido and all around Japan.


picking apples in the countryside group work in Hokkaido


After 5 days of touring around Hokkaido, meeting wonderful people and taking in the countryside and the many stories it had to tell, day 1 of the summit finally came and we all felt more prepared than ever to represent our island community and country, and finally get to work. Participating countries were split up into breakout groups distinguished by themes. Our group, J, which consisted of schools from Vanuatu, Micronesia, South Korea and schools from across Japan, had the task of building an action plan communities could use to build back better following natural disasters. The groups worked for over 6 hours to develop a plan that answered the needs of all our represented countries and prepared to share it at day 2 of the summit with the rest of the country delegates who had their own themed workshops. In the workshop, our US delegation was broken up into various groups and took leadership roles in their respective teams immediately to help guide and mediate discussion and planning. Towards the end of their workshop on the first day, Mio Fujimoto, Derya Hanusz-Soguk and May Song took on the task of synthesizing the work of 36 representatives, encouraging further dialogue and finalizing an action plan that everyone could get behind. It was a wonderful day of collaboration that gave everyone an opportunity to share their voice. Day 1 of the summit was perfectly concluded with a beautiful evening of cultural performances by a few of the participating countries and the great opportunity to put our work aside and enjoy each other's company and the worldly relationships we had so quickly formed.



May song representing the USA Kaiser's  presentation


The last and final work day of our trip was also the second and final day of the summit. We spent the morning partaking in a commemorative tree-planting ceremony at the Governor's residence in downtown Sapporo. Mio Fujimoto and a student representative from Hokkaido worked together to plant a tree to honor the tsunami victims and pay tribute to the thousands of students and leaders working together to increase awareness worldwide. Delegates from several governing bodies including the Hokkaido Board of Education also unveiled a wonderful statue to commemorate the on-going work Japan is doing to help other countries prepare. It was a beautiful event to start the day and an excellent reminder of the greatness we can achieve when we work together. 



tree planting ceremony tree planting at governor's house group


Afterwards, back at the summit, representatives from each group shared the action plans their countries had worked together to form the day before. Nicole Iwamasa was chosen as one of the representatives of our group and along with a student from one of the high schools in Japan, the two spoke eloquently in front of over 800 people about what it takes to build back better. The action plan they shared spoke primarily of communication, but it held specifics that all countries could adopt.


For one, in Japan, where there are designated courses and curriculum on natural disaster awareness and where evacuation drills are practiced regularly, students feel more prepared and confident with their community plan. Shared among all groups we spoke to, the vast majority of representatives from around the world felt their education systems did a poor job (if at all) to educate and plan for natural disasters.


doing group work at summit Anna Wood leading a discussion

Furthermore, they shared that it is the responsibility of the entire community to come together and share their perspectives, fears and concerns. Every person must be accounted for. No person, regardless of personal situation, ability, or other individual circumstances that might make evacuation or aid difficult, should feel unprepared. A community must find its strength through its ability to listen to one another and prepare to render aid to each and every neighbor. In a place where we literally watched videos of high school students carrying each other on their backs as a part of routine evacuation drills that take place from primary school through high school, every country soon realized that we all have a long ways to go if we're going to truly commit to disaster preparedness. We know there a lot of organizations in Hawaii that can be called upon to help, but the summit called for a redesignation of accountability. None of the 500 students from around the world or the hundreds of student volunteers from different prefectures around Japan thought that depending upon one or two relief organizations or the local or regional government's disaster recovery plans was enough. The summit ended with a call for all members of all neighborhoods in every part of the world to step up and start a conversation about preparing competently, effectively and proactively for natural disasters and recovery.

World tsunami summit group team representing usa


In closing, this was a trip of a lifetime. We went to serve as representatives of our island and country, but ended up becoming members of a shared world whose diverse populations and complex challenges offer us common road maps to solutions with only language as a barrier. But with 44 countries coming together, and achieving such success, in the end, we hardly saw language as an obstacle at all. What's true is that we all have more in common than we have that separates us. The UN's plans for risk reduction are a great start and with what's been laid out by 44 different countries it seems like now's the time for every nation to begin making necessary preparations for an uncertain world. It is simply the people that need to make the time to come together before it's too late. 

I'd like, finally, to say Mahalo to the Hawaii Department of Education and superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto, as well as Henry J. Kaiser High School Head of School, Justin Mew, for entrusting us with this wonderful opportunity. It was an honor to represent our home and one we shall never forget. Next, to the incredible people of JTB, namely Kazuo and Masami, who went above and beyond to ensure that our experiences were as fun as they were meaningful and educational. They had a wealth and depth of knowledge about every place we explored and the backgrounds and histories of the people with whom we broke bread and in whose homes we shared. They walked us through all the customs and traditions that were integral to our learning and our respectful participation while visiting even the smallest country towns. I am forever grateful for these two JTB legends. To the Hokkaido Board of Education and the organizers of the UN World Tsunami Awareness Summit 2019, thank you for providing the space for these issues to be discussed and for the much needed platform for our world's future leaders to take their stand as global citizens and tomorrow's heroes. Then, to the hundreds upon hundreds of students from Okushiri High School, Kutchan Agricultural High School and every other school that volunteered their time and knowledge: your work has already made a world of difference to so many that will certainly have ripple effects for generations to come worldwide. Keep up the amazing work!

Finally, to my students: Anna Wood, Derya Hanusz-Soguk, May Song, Mio Fujimoto and Nicole Iwamasa. Thank you so much for all your work. I'm proud of you beyond words. You've taken your place as global leaders at arguably the highest level there is. Your empathetic and selfless concern for others, your dedication to a shared humanity and your consistent consideration and care for those whose experiences and fears are wildly different than your own has awarded you wisdom that very few get to experience. I'm so proud of you all. On a lighter note, this trip would not have been the same without this team. From the ferry where we first met our global friends to Okushiri Island and our B&B...from the Lakeview terrace and our karaoke night to rambling through the streets of Sapporo...from your spontaneous dancing and to your iconic man-pose...from your voracious appetites and your Gatcha obsession to our final (finally!) face mask night. Your spirit and joy colored everything we did and I could not have traveled with a better group. You each have so much to offer this world and I'm extremely excited to see what doors you open next. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this trip with you and will remember this trip fondly. I love you all.


group dining group posing at Lake Toyo