The higher they are…

Tower condos in Musashi Kosugi

When Typhoon Hagibis roared through the Kanto Plain Oct. 12, three homeless individuals were turned away from an emergency evacuation center in Tokyo’s Taito Ward because they could not prove they were registered as residents in the ward. The incident gave rise to a lot of soul searching on the part of the authorities, but there were also quite a few people on social media who felt the staff of the evacuation center didn’t do anything wrong. To these people, the homeless really are on their own and shouldn’t expect any help from the rest of society.

As it turns out, there is a corollary to this attitude that applies to the rich. As everyone knows, the Tama River overflowed its banks during the typhoon, causing flooding in parts of Setagaya and Ota Wards. The waters didn’t inundate the other side of the river, which lines the city of Kawasaki. However, the rising waters did cause sewage lines to back up, thus resulting in what is called “internal flooding” that inundated train stations and the basements of some condominium and apartment buildings. This problem was totally unexpected by both the authorities and residents of the area. The neighborhood that was hit the worst was the one surrounding Musashi Kosugi station, which services several train lines and is thus extremely popular. There are at least ten tower condominiums surrounding the station, and as we reported in an earlier post, apartments in these buildings are quite expensive. It’s one of the few areas in the Tokyo metropolitan area where used residences are increasing in price because they are in such demand. New condos in the area go for about ¥70 million, so only the affluent can afford them.

Two of the tower condos lost all power during the storm due to basement flooding that overwhelmed the electrical systems. That meant elevators and water pumps didn’t work, so people had to use the stairs to haul bottles of water up to their apartments. Obviously, the higher up you live, the more difficult your life would be. A lot of elderly retired people live on the higher floors. Essentially, they had to evacuate the building until power was restored since there was no way they could walk up and down dozens of flights of stairs. According to a report in Shukan Asahi, the authorities were not clear as to why some buildings lost power and others didn’t, but at least one building that lost power didn’t have it turned back on for several weeks. Residents are wondering whether or not they can sue the management company for not being prepared for such an eventuality, but until a thorough investigation is finished they will have to wait. If experts conclude that it was no one’s fault, then the building’s homeowners’ association will have to pay for the repairs, which could be considerable and would thus severely deplete the repair fund for the building. Property values haven’t dropped in the area yet, but they could in the future if civil engineers judge the area to be more susceptible to flooding that previously thought, or it is determined that the buildings themselves weren’t properly designed to handle flooding. In any case, the idea that tower condos are automatically safe from storms because they are vertical is no longer a given, and potential buyers will have to look at hazard maps just as potential buyers of detached houses should do.

So the flip side to the public reaction to homeless people being shut out of evacuation centers is the schadenfreude being expressed in social media in reaction to all these well-off people in Musashi Kosugi being inconvenienced by the storm. An article by Atsushi Manabe in Newsweek described how people on the internet responded to the news of the condos losing power and longer lines than usual forming outside Musashi Kosuge station during the commuting hours. People posted photos online of the chaotic situation in the area and gloated, saying that even the rich were not sheltered from the effects of the typhoon in their enormous, expensive towers. Manabe referenced the American writer Rebecca Solnit, who coined the phrase “disaster utopia” to describe the spirit of altruism that sweeps through society following a natural disaster. Solnit bemoaned the loss of this spirit as communities became more closed off and atomized. Manabe would like to call the situation following Typhoon Hagibis a disaster dystopia, since not only did the public show little pity for the exposed homeless, but they derided the rich for thinking their money would protect them. This would seem to be another new normal as a result of climate change.

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