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After earthquake, Japan asks how a nation prepares for the unimaginable

Japan has been widely praised for its disaster readiness, but the magnitude 9.0 earthquake has the country asking how it can be better equipped to handle the next big one.

By Winifred BirdCorrespondent / March 18, 2011

Hotel employees squat down in horror at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after a strong earthquake hit Japan on March 11.

Itsuo Inouye/AP

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Mihama, Mie Prefecture, Japan

Fumie Sugiuchi lives so close to the beach that she can watch the moon rise over the Pacific Ocean from the second floor of her house, about eight hours by car southwest of Tokyo. But until a massive earthquake hit northern Japan on March 11, the retired elementary school teacher said she never took the threat of a tsunami seriously.

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"We always thought we'd be fine here. After watching the footage from the north, I think that was a mistake," says Ms. Sugiuchi, holding up a neatly folded – and unused – emergency supply bag that the town government distributed, along with a list of what should go in it, nearly 20 years ago.

Japan has been widely praised for its thorough disaster preparedness and advanced earthquake prediction technology. One week ago, however, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that has resulted in a nuclear crisis, far exceeding the hazard estimates that inform disaster management plans.

Now, as Japan struggles to help hundreds of thousands of displaced victims and prevent a nuclear meltdown at the same time, Japan is asking a new question: How can a nation prepare for the unimaginable?

"We're going to have to change almost everything [related to disaster planning]," says Manabu Hashimoto, an earthquake scientist at Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute.

State of readiness

In the seaside town of Mihama, Mie Prefecture, where Ms. Sugiuchi lives, many disaster-response measures are already in place. Wireless announcement systems in each house, and in public places throughout town, issue a warning as soon as a coming earthquake is detected. Seconds later, the system automatically warns that a tsunami may follow.

The community of about 10,000 has 61 neighborhood-disaster response groups. Residents are advised to prepare three days' worth of emergency supplies, and the town hall stocks even more.

But town planning official Masanao Hashiji has started to doubt whether that's enough. "In the kind of disaster that just hit, the town hall itself is at risk of being washed away. The question is, just how much do we need to prepare for?"

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