Evacuation Zones: Elusive Borders in Motion
09.16.2011, 6:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

From June to August of this past summer Tim Maly and Emily Horne facilitated an independent design studio in Toronto entitled, Border Town. The project’s participants took up the topic of divided cities for 10 weeks. Their mandate: “Using border towns as a point of entry, we will approach these abstractions as design problems. By investigating these strange edge cases of political geography, we can think about and design for the interaction of cultural and physical architectures. Together, we will explore how these forces shape the built environment and its inhabitants.”  The Border Town project archive can be accessed in its entirety here.

An additional component of Maly and Horne’s project is now underway, and will be on display at the Detroit Design Festival starting September 21st. For this digital segment of Border Town, artists, designers, bloggers (and more) have been invited to comment on and contribute to the project. FOP is one of these contributors. After the recent brush with hurricane Irene in New York City, we’ve had evacuation zones on our minds, and sense the increasing likelihood that more and more of us will unexpectedly find ourselves within one or more such zones throughout our lifetimes.

In response, we’ve decided to use this occasion to take a closer look at the elusive borders of the evacuation zones surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi facility in the Tōhoku region of Japan.  We want to consider what lessons they might offer for how to develop more responsive, nuanced visualizations of evacuation zones, especially for events of long-lasting geologic consequence.

Soon after the March 11th disaster two different evacuation zone orders were released. Their differences were highly publicized. The first, from the Japanese government, required a mandatory evacuation of residents within 20km (12.5 miles) of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The second, issued from the United States, warned U.S. citizens to evacuate at least 80 km (50 miles) from the plant. The maps of these zones were at great odds with one another and rendered the cities existing at their edges and between their respective borders in highly precarious positions. The Center for Disease Control estimated that at least 2 million people inhabited the region enclosed within the the 80 km evacuation zone suggested by the United States.

image from the Center for Disease Control

When considering these maps, we can’t help but question the perfectly concentric circles that radiate out from Fukushima Daiichi. What should we make of their extension beyond the island’s edge, signaling inevitable and direct contact between radioactive materials and the Pacific Ocean? How might “mandatory evacuation” be handled in the Ocean? These maps fall short in addressing the vastly different, and very real, environments that radioactive materials affect on land and in the sea. And what to make of the rings themselves—should they be read as indicators of how an increase in distance equates with a precise and incremental decrease in exposure and risk?

As we have addressed before, the tricky thing about tracking and attempting to contain air or waterborne radioactivity as it poses risks to human health, is that it is both invisible and highly susceptible to being swept up into erratic and complex geologic flows such as water, wind, and human movement. Given these realities, it’s simply impossible that the risk within these zones is, was, or ever could be equally dispersed throughout the 360 degree spheres visualized.

As news of radioactive tea, beef, hay, mushrooms, firewood, seafood and seaweed have surfaced in the last few months far outside the evacuation zone, it’s clear that radioactivity has been on the move, both over land and coastal waters for months. Unfortunately, these mobile zones of contamination have no distinct edges, constantly ebbing and flowing with shifts in meteorological conditions, ocean currents—and continuously exceeding human capacities to capture and contain them. Perhaps then, the initial maps, that tidily contain the zones of risk, become visual representations of what we humans wished were the case, as they attempt to overlay order upon a highly chaotic and ever-changing set of circumstances.

On August 9th, 2011 the New York Times released a map that visualized an incredibly more nuanced and erratic spread of radiation. The data shown had been collected by a Japanese computerized monitoring system immediately after the earthquake and tsunami. The information was made available to the Japanese government on March 16th, but it was first shared with the public months later. In this image, concentric circles representing actual or potential dispersal of radioactivity are revealed to be seriously inadequate. The actual patterns of dispersal took the forms of two amorphous, discontinuous patches that angled away from the plant in one dominant direction and breached the rings of the 20 km evacuation zones.

In the days after March 11th, reliable and accurate data was urgently needed by those citizens who inhabited the zone immediately bordering the nuclear plant. The Japanese actually had such a technology ready: SPEEDI,  But the required communication systems between local and national governments and the public were not in place to share this information in an efficient and streamlined way.

“Given no guidance from Tokyo, town officials led the residents north, believing that winter winds would be blowing south and carrying away any radioactive emissions. For three nights, while hydrogen explosions at four of the reactors spewed radiation into the air, they stayed in a district called Tsushima where the children played outside and some parents used water from a mountain stream to prepare rice. The winds, in fact, had been blowing directly toward Tsushima — and town officials would learn two months later that a government computer system designed to predict the spread of radioactive releases had been showing just that. But the forecasts were left unpublicized by bureaucrats in Tokyo, operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism. Japan’s political leaders at first did not know about the system and later played down the data, apparently fearful of having to significantly enlarge the evacuation zone — and acknowledge the accident’s severity.” – NY Times, August 8th

The mayor of the town of Namie, just north of the facility, was quoted as saying that the concealment of this crucial information was, “akin to murder.” 

What might be gleaned from these events is a brutal truth:  we simply can’t predict highly variable geologic forces, including the ramifying consequences of earthquakes, tsunamis, and wide-spread radioactive release. Since we live on a planet that unleashes rings of force that are far from organized or isolated, might our best course of action be to learn how to read the shifting directions of wind and water and then design continuously updated and communicable maps that visualize, in real-time, the erratic flows of forces surrounding us?

Many Japanese people seem to be determined to assemble and disseminate such information. A few examples include the Institute for Information Design Japan and brave individuals who have broken with cultural norms and begun monitoring radioactivity in their own backyards. And, in August, the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency started making highly detailed surveys of the land within 100 km of the Fukushima facility using a Google Earth technology. They claim these maps will, “help evacuees decide whether it is safe to return home, and help government officials with decontaminating efforts.”

For now, it seems the presumed borders between cities deemed safe and those deemed contaminated in Japan are highly speculative. In such zones of uncertainty, vastly disparate scales of time converge. In August, evacuated families were allowed back into the zone of contamination for a short 4 hours to weed graves in preparation for paying homage to deceased relatives for the Bon holidays. Their actions were in stark relief to news that many may not be allowed to move back permanently for decades.  It will be decades, if not centuries, before the Fukushima facilities can be decommissioned entirely, as many of materials still contained within will pose serious danger to humans for millennia.

from the OEM (Office of Emergency Management) evacuation map of New York City

Back in New York, looking out our window, it’s hard to imagine that our familiar environment could suddenly be rendered an evacuation zone. Yet, as we learned just a couple weeks ago during Hurricane Irene, this can happen, and can happen often, especially for edge cities. In preparation for Irene, FOP spent some time considering New York City’s official evacuation map. The map is divided into four distinct zones, three zones of evacuation and one non-zone, supposedly deemed safe up to a Category 5 hurricane. FOP’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn falls well within the highly vulnerable Zone A, shown in orange on the map above. Our neighborhood of residence, Park Slope, falls exactly at the edge of Zone C, shown in green. We wonder if all areas of the City marked in orange are as susceptiable as others? Surely they aren’t, depending on the direction of the wind and state of the tides on any particular day. We also paused when considering the white area, the “safe zone” shown at the center of the section of the map above. Who would ride out a category 4 hurricane in this white island surrounded by zones of evacuation—is this what safety looks like?

The simple truth, being learned by more and more people around the world everyday, is that borders of evacuation zones and areas of risk cut across the designs of our cities, neighborhoods, and infrastructures. The specific intensities—the force of the storm, the flood, and rate of release, are elements impossible to predict with certainty.  Yet they are what will dictate exactly where and when we find ourselves inside or outside an area requiring evacuation. And, as the events in Japan so clearly illustrate, we all live in relation to the geologic materials and forces that spill beyond their anticipated borders.

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