Shipping containers

Shipping containers piled up after the Tsunami (credit: MSNBC)

The news and my mind are entirely preoccupied with Thursday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan and subsequent tsunami that has devastated that country.  Today’s news brings further horror  — an explosion at a nuclear power plant and the possibility of an entire town buried in mud, maybe 10,000 people missing.   I am at a loss to imagine how and where a country will begin to clean up such an enormous mess.

I remember my reaction when New Orleans was washed away by the ocean after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; I was outraged that a nation as large and rich as the United States of America, that my country, could be so ill-prepared for such a disaster and handle it so poorly. I was shocked and profoundly disappointed.  American bureaucracy and politics failed New Orleans.

I remember my reaction after Haiti was struck by an earthquake last year; I was saddened that a country could be so cripplingly destitute and then have the misfortune to be on the receiving end of such a disaster. Haiti’s problems began long before the earthquake; the entire world failed that nation.

But Japan. What has happened there is horrifying. The aerial film footage of that wall of water appearing to ooze across the land like a giant creature carrying entire towns in its body, is terrifying to watch. Yet somehow my reaction is this: Japan will manage. It’ll be hard as hell and they won’t do it alone, but they will manage.

Of all countries, Japan is probably the most equipped to deal with an earthquake and tsunami. Their strict building codes alone have probably been responsible for saving millions of lives. That Tokyo and surrounding cities still stand is a testament to the calculated research and reengineering that went into Japanese architecture and city planning after the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

The difference in outcomes can be seen in the startling disparity between the death toll in Haiti after that earthquake (which was 100 times weaker) – nearly 250,000 people– and that of Japan where the official count right now stands at around 2000 10,000*.  While it will likely soar into the tens of thousands as rescuers make their way into disaster areas, it is unlikely that the death tolls will approach anything like that of Haiti.

But equally important in preserving lives is the Japanese public education on emergency response.  Japan has been relentless in its quest to make sure every citizen understands what to do and where to go in case of an earthquake or impending tsunami. Escape routes are clearly labeled in English and Japanese, evacuation drills are held regularly, and tsunami sirens are tested often.  And this pays off.  According to civil engineer Matthew Francis, quoted in the above-linked NY Times article,

“For a trained population, a matter of 5 or 10 minutes is all you may need to get to high ground.”

All of this because the Japanese understand that this CAN happen to them. There is no atmosphere of denial.  There is no sloppy adherence to regulations when it comes to building codes and construction. There is no pinching of pennies (or yen, as it were) for disaster preparedness.  And there is no public resistance to drills and the use of tax dollars. No, these people who live in the presense of the some of the most damaging natural occurrences on our planet, have got their priorities straight.

And from this we should all take a lesson.  New Orleans, LA has been below sea level and directly in the path of hurricanes for its entire existence.  Yet, only after being literally washed off the map by hurricane Katrina, did the country come to the shocked realization that the state of Louisiana had no system in place for evacuating the city, no means for providing shelter for evacuees, and no plan for managing the aftermath of a devastating hurricane. Nobody, it seemed (at least not the decision-makers), had believed that something like this could happen to New Orleans. And then it did.

What needs to happen in the other North American cities to remind us that every city and every state needs a real disaster preparedness plan; one that involves more than just escape route signage, but that actually engages and educates the public? As we start to face more and more climate-related disasters cities are going to find themselves faced with moving and/or sheltering large numbers of people. It certainly would make a difference to have that “trained population” Francis refers to.

Nicholas Kristoff wrote a touching commentary in the NY Times on the Japanese people’s propensity for perseverance and orderliness.  “There’s a common Japanese word, “gaman,” that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is something like “toughing it out,” wrote Kristoff.

And because I can’t say it better, I’ll close with Kristoff’s final paragraph:

I find something noble and courageous in Japan’s resilience and perseverance, and it will be on display in the coming days. This will also be a time when the tight knit of Japan’s social fabric, its toughness and resilience, shine through. And my hunch is that the Japanese will, by and large, work together — something of a contrast to the polarization and bickering and dog-eat-dog model of politics now on display from Wisconsin to Washington. So maybe we can learn just a little bit from Japan. In short, our hearts go out to Japan, and we extend our deepest sympathy for the tragic quake. But also, our deepest admiration.

平和 (heiwa) – Peace.


*updated Sunday Mar 13.