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.
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Mr. Hashimoto, of Kyoto University, says last week's disaster also highlights fundamental problems with Japan's early-warning system. Because fault lines ruptured in four different places over a span of 300 miles, detection devices were unable to function accurately and initially underestimated the quake's strength by about 10 times, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Tsunami warnings came quickly, he adds, but the height of the waves far exceeded what towns had prepared for. A government research council had forecast a 90 percent likelihood of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake shaking Sendai – near the epicenter of last week's temblor – in the next 30 years. Local disaster response plans were based on that estimate.
Tsunamis frequently batter the region, and in vulnerable inlets residents routinely flee to high ground as soon as an earthquake hits. This time, however, huge walls of water reached three miles inland.
History of disasters
Major natural disasters are not unusual in Japan. Just 16 years ago, the Great Hanshin Earthquake killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed vast swaths of wooden houses around the city of Kobe. In the aftermath, Japan rethought its approach to disaster management. National and local response plans were revised, improved information-sharing systems designed, and a new cabinet post – Minister of State for Disaster Management – created to coordinate action.
"It took four days for any Self-Defense Forces to come into [Kobe]. This time, instantaneous information has allowed emergency rescue squads to be there in a few hours. It's a textbook case of emergency preparedness," says David Edgington, a geographer and earthquake expert at the University of British Columbia.
"Of course we need plans based on what we can rationally expect to happen. But we also need to think about events that go beyond rational predictions," said Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki.
For Mihama resident Ms. Sugiuchi, the haunting images from northern Japan have shadowed a long-unquestioned sense of safety.
"Even in a civilization as technologically advanced as ours, in the end people can only rely on the most primitive of things, like candles and kerosene stoves.... When I look at that reality, I have deep doubts about how much we can protect ourselves from disasters," she said.