People who were isolated at an elementary school, head for a safe place in Sendai, northern Japan Saturday. (AP Photo)
The course of events in Japan have, once again, brought to light the uncertainty amongst most who live and work in the U.S., especially those in areas more often threatened by natural disaster…Are we ready?
In a word, no.
As a nation, Japan has the most dedicated and sophisticated preparedness measures in place. Their engineering is second-to-none, they carry out a nationwide earthquake drill every year, and they rolled through two 7+ earthquakes with very little disruption to any of their infrastructure. The fact that it took an 8.9 quake and a 30 foot tsunami to shake them is a testament to their preparedness.
An NPR report posted yesterday pointed out that ‘because of a long history of frequent, sizable earthquakes, Japan was relatively well-prepared for the latest quake. Japan could not protect its entire coastline against tsunami with its system of seawalls. And with sizable aftershocks still occurring, the final death toll will not be known for some time. But it will be a fraction of the 230,000 deaths seen in Haiti following last year’s earthquake.’
Japan’s preparedness is not limited to engineering. As a nation, the Japanese people take preparedness seriously and practice regularly, a practice that receives very little attention in the States unless prompted by a recent event.
‘Oregon officials, for instance, organized a large-scale earthquake drill on Jan. 26 — the 311th anniversary of a Pacific Northwest earthquake that was roughly the size of Japan’s on Friday.
But with no such disaster in living memory, the drill was a rare example of the area preparing itself. The first seismic building codes didn’t go into effect in Oregon until after the wake-up call of a 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif. Retrofitting since has been piecemeal and slow.
“The Northwest coast of the U.S., that’s where the big problem is, if you ask me,” says Pedro Silva, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at George Washington University. “The potential is there for a mega-earthquake of the magnitude we saw in Japan. You would be unlikely to see many buildings withstand it.”
Surviving earthquakes is more than a matter of building quality and design. A place like Japan seeks to instill in its citizens a sense of how crucial it is to prepare. Haiti may not see another sizable quake for 200 years. But many other locales know they’ll get hit again. The difference between death tolls of 1,000 or 100,000 may come down to a shared belief that another earthquake will hit within their lifetimes, so it’s worth investing the resources necessary to survive it. “In Japan, they have a civilization of earthquake preparedness,” says Silva, who has visited the country three times. “What really amazed me was that even at the kindergarten level, they receive earthquake briefings continuously. It’s really in their culture.”
So, after all is said and done in Japan, after reporters leave and families begin to rebuild, the most important thing for us all to do is to remember this and every disaster and to learn from those who prepared. If we continue to remind ourselves that these disasters will happen again and, most likely, will happen in our country, our state, maybe even our own community then we can begin to prepare.
Every emergency kit assembled, every emergency response team training, every community exercise takes us one step closer to being prepared to handle these disasters to the best of our abilities.
As professionals, we owe it to our staff and clients. As citizens, we owe it to our communities. Most of all, we owe it to our loved ones.
View the full NPR report here.
If you are looking for persons missing in the quake, have information on missing persons, need local Japan contact information or want to donate to help quake victims, visit the Google Crisis Response page.
For more information on how you can prepare for natural disasters, visit our website.