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.

Itsuo Inouye/AP
Hotel employees squat down in horror at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after a strong earthquake hit Japan on March 11.
Hiroaki Ono/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP
A survivor pushes a bicycle on his way to a shelter in Minamisanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, March 18, a week after a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami.

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.

"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?"

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.

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.

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