After a disaster: Building a better future

Every disaster prompts an outpouring of compassion and assistance. Every disaster also causes us to learn lessons that help improve our lives.

REUTERS/Issei Kato
People watch a television broadcasting Japan's Emperor Akihito's televised address to the nation at an electronics retail store in Tokyo. Japanese Emperor Akihito said problems at Japan's nuclear-power reactors were unpredictable and he was "deeply worried" following an earthquake he described as "unprecedented in scale". It was an extraordinarily rare appearance by the emperor and his first public comments since last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of people.

The first 74 days of 2011 have been as busy as any in memory.

Revolution has rocked the Middle East. A natural disaster of immense proportions has battered Japan. Only a few weeks before that an earthquake hit New Zealand. Oil prices have surged. Financial markets have reeled. Supply chains have been interrupted.

It can be difficult to maintain perspective amid such dramatic news. History reminds us, however, that humans have always been faced with unsettling events. Almost once a decade, for instance, Japan has been hit by a major seismic shock. One of the worst -- the "Great Kanto Earthquake" of 1923 -- prompted new building codes and emergency drills that can be credited with significantly decreasing casualties this time around. Japan's 2011 disaster will likely bring a toughening of nuclear safety.

Architects and urban planners will rethink coastal communities. Automakers and other multinational businesses will pause -- at least for a moment -- to consider the risks that come with having their suppliers and work forces spread across the globe. It is little comfort to those mourning the loss of friends and relatives, but lessons learned in early 2011 will help build a better future.

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