I’ve been obsessively following the latest news from the devastating earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan a few days ago, listening to internet streams of NHK radio, the public broadcasting service there, which has been covering the aftermath non-stop. My family in Tokyo were shaken but otherwise perfectly ok, though early reports of wounded literally blocks from my parents’ condo did have me somewhat concerned.
The M9.0 earthquake, possibly the 5th largest earthquake in recorded history, wreaked havoc across a wide swath of Japan’s north-eastern coast when it triggered massive tsunamis, some reportedly over 30ft high and reaching the 4th floor of buildings. This veritable wall of water traveled at speeds exceeding 20ft/second, and reached 10km (6 miles) in-land in places, sweeping away with it houses, cars, trains and people and pretty much anything not made of reinforced concrete. In addition to the sheer size of the waves, they also struck a mere 10 minutes after the initial quake (which itself lasted 5 minutes), leaving people with little time to evacuate in those affected areas. There are beaches where hundreds of bodies have washed up, and cities where over half the residents are unaccounted for. One prefecture alone is expecting a death toll in excess of 10,000.
However, help is on the way. One of the largest relief efforts, possibly in the history of the developed world, is converging on north-eastern Japan. Half a dozen countries, including New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France, Singapore, and China have rescue workers and medical teams en route. In addition to the 50,000 Japanese Self Defense Forces troops activated previously, another 50,000 were called up today for a total of 100,000 soldiers. Off the coast, an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and a couple of destroyers of the US Navy have arrived to assist in rescue and relief operations, and I’ve read reports that the Marines may use amphibious landing vessels to deliver aid.
I think this particular disaster is worth following for those of us in the developed world, because there are already lessons we could learn. Japan is a wealthy and technologically advanced nation, and one which has spent considerable time, effort and resources in preparing for earthquakes. For instance, the high-rise condo my parents live in in Tokyo has elevators equipped with P-wave sensors that stop elevators at the nearest floor before the main quakes strike (P-waves travel at the speed of sound, and therefore move ahead of the actual earth-moving waves). Japan’s high speed rail service which travels at speeds exceeding 180mph are also similarly equipped, and suffered no casualties in this quake. Emergency broadcasts on TV can also warn viewers of incoming earthquakes, often before they actually can be felt. These are just a few examples of technologies available in Japan that I haven’t even seen in California — an equally quake-prone region.
Yet, as we watched the devastation spreading, it also became clear that there are limits to what technology can do. There are also limits to what the government can do. No doubt, this earthquake and the resulting tsunami was a hellish scenario that would’ve been difficult to prepare for or defend against. For many, escape simply was not an option. Sometimes, Nature wins.
But, as the country enters its 3rd night, a new kind of tragedy is unfolding. At one point, the radio announcer interviewed someone at an evacuation center, who painted a desperate picture: people huddled on rooftops with few blankets, no drinking water, no food, dwindling supply of medicine for the sick. The man ended with a desperate plea for supplies. From other reports, it seemed that many other isolated evacuation centers faced similar conditions. The suffering I heard about from survivors is a different kind of tragedy to the original disaster; one that might’ve been prevented, or at least eased significantly, with a little preparation.
If there’s one obvious lesson we could learn, it’s that the best preparation happens locally, starting with the individual on out. Every household should have a stockpile of food and water to last at least a week. In the event that evacuation is necessary, there should be a go-bag, equipped with essentials like food and water, emergency blankets, flashlights, a radio, spare batteries and cash. I’m hearing that flashlights are selling out in Tokyo, and if people don’t have flashlights, it seems even less likely that they have go-bags. Failing that (or to augment that), designated evacuation centers should be stocked with enough food, water, emergency blankets and other basic supplies to last at least a few days. While communication networks appear largely operational even in the worst hit areas, without power, people are unable to use their cell phones once their batteries run out (pay phones have become free, though long queues have been reported). This is a problem that could easily be solved by a few hundred dollars worth of solar panels mounted at each evacuation center, which could provide more than enough power to keep dozens of phones charged (or, at the individual level, a cheap $30 kit).
We’ve seen disaster victims suffer unnecessarily in a developed nation before, with Katrina. Even though the Superdome was designated as an evacuation center, it wasn’t stocked with necessary supplies. Prevailing emergency plans seem to be:
Step 1 – Get people to evacuation centers.
Step 2 – Wing it.
While I would not fault the Japanese government’s response by any means (which, if anything has been extraordinary, especially compared to FEMA during Katrina), the reality seems to be that Step 2 is challenging, even with the best of intentions. The reality is, getting supplies to masses after a catastrophic and unpredictable disaster is so much harder than prepositioning those same supplies when roads, airfields, and ports are accessible.
Better preparation can also save money, in addition to easing suffering of those affected. It costs a lot of money to activate troops and deploy helicopters. Supplies may simply cost more after disasters, since, after all, Econ 101 taught us that prices go up when demand goes up. It also may be harder to negotiate reasonable prices when desperate people are waiting.
Basic preparation such as those I outlined could also save lives. All day today, the radio reported of evacuees being air lifted from evacuation centers that lacked supplies to actually act as short-term emergency shelters. If those evacuation centers had been better stocked, those helicopters might’ve been better employed rescuing those who could really use help, like the 67 year old lady who clung to a tree for 15 hours after being swept away by a tsunami.
It is a pity that human nature seems to be deprived of foresight, and that it takes such tragedy to be reminded of our frailty. Even then, little may be done as a society, or even as a community. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to get politicians to increase funding for disaster preparedness, or that you could get stockpiles set up at the local shelter. But as individuals, we can learn and act. Tomorrow, it may be you and I, and what we do today could make all the difference. Be prepared.