Japan’s Remarkable Disaster Readiness

March 11th, 2011 at 11:47 am | 39 Comments |

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I grew up in Japan from Kindergarten through high school, so when I learned about the earthquake that struck the country this morning, I immediately had flashbacks to the many disaster preparedness drills I had gone through growing up. The images on the television of the aftermath of the earthquake are undoubtedly extreme and the level of damage from this natural disaster is more than any that I can remember from my lifetime. In addition to the news on television, a glance at facebook shows that many of my friends from Japan are scared as well. It seems that many phone lines are not working and I am sure the mobile phone networks are over-saturated as well. I’m also learning interesting pieces of news, apparently the roof of an ice skating rink my friends and I used to go to as a kid has collapsed.

However, only Japan could be hit with an 8.9 scale quake and come out of it with only hundreds dead. Similarly large earthquakes in less prepared countries have killed tens of thousands almost instantly. (A 7.5 earthquake in Bangladesh killed 90,000 people within minutes in 2010).

When it comes to earthquake preparedness, Japan does set the gold standard. In addition to strict building codes, a concerted effort is made to train and drill the entire population. Schools regularly practice evacuation routes, classrooms keep enough helmets in stock for all students, and reminders about where the safest place to be during a quake (under tables or in doorways) are constantly reiterated. I have vivid memories of an earthquake simulation truck that would travel around to educate people about what a large quake would feel like. The truck would be cut open to reveal a diorama of a living room. A series of springs would be activated to shake the diorama at levels up to and beyond the scale of quakes that Japan would normally be hit by.

Just as important as the civil preparedness, the security of Japan’s infrastructure is also a high priority. Its nuclear power plants have managed to be controlled despite initial concerns of a cooling problem.

Earthquakes are also excellent times to remember that Japan’s architects and construction companies are some of the best and most thorough in the world. Web video is already circulating of Japanese skyscrapers swaying dramatically.  This video may look shocking to the uninitiated, but it is actually a very good thing: it is much better for a building to move and sway with the earthquake as opposed to resisting it.

Undoubtedly this is the largest natural disaster to have hit Japan in decades. We will still need to follow the news to see what the final toll is, as well as to learn whether there were parts of the preparedness system that did not work properly. The most important lesson to take away is that concerted and rationally formulated mitigation methods do work in limiting the damage, even from a disaster on this scale.

UPDATE:

This explainer from Time about Japan’s evolving building codes makes a very good case for proactive and responsible government:

When disaster does hit, as it did today, Japan’s buildings fare relatively well. In 1981 Japan updated its building guidelines with an eye to earthquake science. The devastating Kobe earthquake, which claimed some 5,100 lives, spurred another round of research on earthquake safety and disaster management. In 2000, the country’s building codes were revised again, this time with specific requirements and mandatory checks. Even at the local level, preparedness is a priority: from 1979 to 2009, Shizuoka prefecture alone poured more than $4 billion into improving the safety of hospitals, schools and social welfare facilities.

It is rare to read about a society which responds to a disaster by learning and taking proactive steps to prevent a similar disaster in the future. Unfortunately, the last time a GOP politician spoke about disaster awareness, it was Bobby Jindal criticizing government spending on volcano monitoring. The fact that the current continuing resolution being used to fund the government also cuts funding for tsunami monitoring is a news item the GOP probably wishes it didn’t have to be saddled with.

There is a strain of libertarian and conservative thought which believes that public services and regulations are not just wasteful but are inherently incapable of ever being beneficial. The Japanese experience should lead to a reevaluation of that claim.


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39 Comments so far ↓

  • Watusie

    You will find it difficult to square this information with the idea that gubbiment is bad.

  • TerryF98

    Contrast with Bush and his feckless abandonment of NOLA during Katrina.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    Terry, you’re portraying yourself as the classic caricature of a liberal who can’t discuss any topic without using it as an excuse to complain about Bush.

    We should be able to discuss at least some subjects without politics butting in.

    • Watusie

      How do we discuss the effectiveness of Japan’s disaster preparedness in a forum dedicated to politics without noting that it is the product of philosophy which is totally at odds with that of the right in this country?

      What would be the “free market solution” to disaster preparedness?

      How would less regulation make buildings safer?

      If you are deadset against anything that can be even marginally described as “nanny state”, who is going to educate the populace with regards to what to do and where to go when disaster strikes?

    • TerryF98

      In case you had not noticed this IS a political forum. So the Rights response to Natural disasters is pertinent.

      Most pertinent right now is the GOP plan to defund Tsunami warnings to save a few dollars.

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/weigel/archive/2011/03/11/gop-s-continuing-resolution-cuts-funding-for-national-weather-service-fema.aspx

    • chephren

      Last time I checked, this was a political website. Every story on here is written from a political perspective. Comments about Bush and Katrina (a minor event compared to the Japanese earthquake) are appropriate.

  • Rabiner

    TRS:

    While I agree with you that TerryF98 is tangentially speaking about Bush for no reason, I tend to side with Watusie regarding the philosophy of conservatives who abhor government regulations and how that could of lead to disaster in Japan if that was the over arching theme of their building codes.

  • balconesfault

    “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Ronald Reagan

    “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Grover Norquist

    “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” PJ O’Rourke

    And I think Bobby Jindal’s captured the GOP attitude towards Government preparedness for natural disasters in his 2009 rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union:

    “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington”

  • Saladdin

    Just my 2 cents, but when you live in an earthquake prone area, wouldn’t your building regulation be a bit more stringent, than say, if you lived in Manhattan?

    • Watusie

      Not if you are letting the construction industry lobbyists write the code.

      The builders’ profits will have been pocketed before the earthquake hits; when it does, and the buildings collapse, and the families of the dead sue, they will disappear behind corporate liability protections and, if need be, bankruptcy.

      They will suffer the minor inconvenience of having to form a new company and pick a new logo; however, they’ll be right back in business, probably getting government contracts to clean up the rubble of their collapsed buildings.

      The dead, however, remain dead.

      • Saladdin

        Yeah Watusie, but in Japan, the culture tends to be different than here. There isn’t the ideology of unvarnished, absolutist free market capitalism. It’s mostly big business capitalism, and the idea is that, while they enjoy profits, they understand their responsibility towards the people more than industries here. This, I think, mainly has to do with Japan being a shame society and the West, more of a sin society.

      • pnwguy

        I stopped by to visit a California-based client when I was in the area last month. The owner just bought a new building and is moving his warehouse into it. But one of the things he’s waiting on is a plan and certification for his pallet racks. The issue of safety with them had never crossed my mind. But CA requires that any over a certain height be anchored into the concrete and have sufficient cross bracing, all for seismic safety. I don’t know how many other states require this. But I’m going to pay attention to them whenever I go into a Home Depot or other “big box” store that have racks over 12 feet high. The potential for these to be death traps in an earthquake are substantial.

        So a state like CA that is always labeled “anti-business” in situations like these, should maybe be considered “pro-life”? How’s that for a twist?

    • MSheridan

      Regarding the greater relative earthquake risk of living and working in Japan than in Manhattan, granted.

      However, it’s only a greater risk of experiencing an earthquake, not a greater risk of dying in one. Someone living in Manhattan is probably considerably more at risk of being injured or killed by an earthquake simply because of that perceived immunity and the lack of stringency in local building codes. The East Coast of the U.S. is not nearly as earthquake-immune as most people think.

      http://www.livescience.com/5071-study-large-earthquake-strike-york-city.html

  • valkayec

    What can I say? I live in California and have family living in San Francisco as well as friends all throughout the Bay Area. Since 5:30 this morning I’ve been monitoring the news to determine how big the Tsunami waves would be that hit the coast.

    We’re somewhat fortunate here regarding preparedness. We’ve had enough earthquakes to learn about how to build structures to withstand earthquakes, and after the last big ones, codes and structures were updated.

    I can’t say the rest of the country has moved in a proactive fashion to prepare themselves for disasters, though. There’s such a deep sense that if we just put our collective heads in the sand, ostrich like, problems will just fade away or never happen.

    Yesterday, the website, Cimate Progress (http://climateprogress.org/2011/03/10/jpl-greenland-antarctica-ice-sheet-mass-loss-accelerating-sea-level-rise-1-foot-by-2050/), noted that JPL (Jet Propulsion Labs) has revised their estimates of massive loss of ice sheets. It’s happening faster faster than previously thought. I wonder what people will do when their homes are literally under water more often or permanently. Yet, even as evidence mounts portending future disasters, the political and public heads sink further into the sand: don’t prepare; pretend.

    Just plain dumb! But then what can be expected of pols who continue to be bought: http://thinkprogress.org/2011/03/10/subprime-kline-funds/

  • talkradiosucks.com

    “While I agree with you that TerryF98 is tangentially speaking about Bush for no reason, I tend to side with Watusie regarding the philosophy of conservatives who abhor government regulations and how that could of lead to disaster in Japan if that was the over arching theme of their building codes.”

    I agree as well. I just hate to see someone fall into such an obvious stereotype, when there are so many other discussions where criticizing Bush makes more sense.

  • WillyP

    I seem to recall that Haiti has a very intrusive government and was not all that well prepared for their earthquake.

    • Saladdin

      Willy, I think that may have more to do with how much money the Haiti govt has as opposed to Japan’s.

      • WillyP

        Yes, well a mob-like government such as Haiti’s tends to depress an economy.

        See 2009-2011 here at home.

        • Watusie

          Willy, I took your advice and I saw 2009-2011 here at home. What I noticed is that the depressing of the economy happened almost entirely in 2008. And, starting in the 2nd quarter of 2009, we’ve had 6 consecutive quarters of recovery. So whatever your point was – FAIL!

        • WillyP

          sometimes, when i read the frighteningly overused word “FAIL” on the internet, all i think about is a fat, bratty child, eyes closed and tearing, mouth wide-open, screaming the word frantically after his mother refuses to give him another doughnut hole. you know, a gut reaction to something he didn’t want to hear.

          could be just me.

        • Bagok

          Heh, WillyP gets served and retorts “get off my lawn”.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    “I seem to recall that Haiti has a very intrusive government and was not all that well prepared for their earthquake.”

    Apparently the phrase “necessary but not sufficient” is a foreign concept to the mouthbreathing crowd.

    • Watusie

      Yep, Willy, it is just you. For the record, that is the second time this WEEK you have tried to blame Obama for something that transpired under Bush. FAIL indeed.

  • MSheridan

    I work in government at the county level. I have many criticisms I could share here regarding the inefficiency and poor leadership decisions I frequently see in the course of my job. I cannot deny that government can have all the faults its detractors claim it usually/often has. However, I have also seen highly successful and popular prevention programs run on a shoestring that demonstrably saved lives (and taxpayer dollars) and that incidentally made mine a better county in which to live.

    Government is a tool. Used well, it does what tools are supposed to do–it builds/fixes things our society needs. Used poorly, it tends to break down itself and weakens our society thereby. I welcome calls for accountability in government operations and prudence in budget allocation. No more than the most avid Tea Party patriot do I want to see my tax dollars squandered. But when deciding on the people who make upper-level political decisions, I want people who believe it is possible for government to be a force for good, not people who see government as a necessary evil.

    • balconesfault

      MSheridan But when deciding on the people who make upper-level political decisions, I want people who believe it is possible for government to be a force for good, not people who see government as a necessary evil.

      You and I see this exactly the same. There will always be room for debate over the proper amount of responsibility that government should on … but there should be no debate over filling the management that runs the bureaucracy with people who believe that the fulfilling the responsibility assigned to them should be their primary goal.

      If instead Government bureaucracies are staffed with people who don’t believe the job they’re hired to do can’t (or shouldn’t) be done, that’s a blueprint for waste, fraud, and failure.

  • Carney

    If Japan lacked strict government regulations on earthquake-resistant construction, does anyone doubt that many if not most buildings in Japan would still be constructed to a high standard of readiness?

    Who in a free market, especially in a high-wealth nation with a lot to lose, wants to have the building he bought in an earthquake zone collapse when the next inevitable shake happens? What architect and construction firm, especially in a shame heavy society, wants to be known as the people whose cruddy work caused a massively deadly spectacular collapse? What insurance company, particularly in a cautious, risk-averse culture, is not going to charge prohibitively high premiums for a high-risk, vulnerable building?

    Yes, regulations can help. But IQ, psychology, and culture probably trump them. And in many cases critics of the free market ignore its built-in incentives to do the right thing.

    • Saladdin

      Yes, regulations can help. But IQ, psychology, and culture probably trump them. And in many cases critics of the free market ignore its built-in incentives to do the right thing.

      Carney, I suspect you’re right, but caveat emptor is the rule for absolute free market capitalism, right?

    • Watusie

      Carney, have you learned nothing from recent history? Who would buy securities backed by subprime mortgages….

  • WillyP

    don’t say such things, carney. you’re exposing yourself as a shill for big business.

  • NRA Liberal

    Obviously there’s a place for intelligent conservatives who can criticize the overreach of big government and still understand that government serves some important functions. My natural reaction to this is to say, sarcastically, “I bet the free market could do a better job”, but that bitterness is caused in reaction to the excesses of free market fundamentalists.

  • Japan earthquake disaster preparedness very strong | ShortFormBlog

    [...] World: Proof in the pudding: Why Japan’s disaster-preparedness works [...]

  • MSheridan

    @Carney,

    It is probable that I will see quite a few unplanned for natural disasters within the U.S. in my lifetime. I have already seen some. New Orleans is an obvious example, but scientists have identified less obvious risks (see the link I posted above). It would be senseless waste to apply the same building codes to every locale, but the “rational market” you are counting on to protect itself does not exist. Building codes are strengthened only when there is sufficient public will for that to happen. Because such changes impose heavy costs, there will always be understandable pushback when they are proposed.

    Out of curiosity (I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question), if there were to be an earthquake in New York City, how many of those buildings would be insured against that at all? It’s not standard on most home insurance there, I know that.

  • Rabiner

    Carney:

    “If Japan lacked strict government regulations on earthquake-resistant construction, does anyone doubt that many if not most buildings in Japan would still be constructed to a high standard of readiness? ”

    You think that’s what happened in China? Capitalism demands that the builders of buildings attempt to get maximum profits and considering the current trend of industry to demand short term gains over long term gains its not hard to believe that Chinese companies used shotty materials since it allowed for more short term profits when constructing schools that eventually pancaked onto students when the last big earthquake hit a few years back. If such a culture exists anywhere similar it is Wall Street, New York, United States.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    “If Japan lacked strict government regulations on earthquake-resistant construction, does anyone doubt that many if not most buildings in Japan would still be constructed to a high standard of readiness?”

    Yes.

    Care for a glass of melamine-laced milk?

  • Watusie

    “If Japan lacked strict government regulations on earthquake-resistant construction, does anyone doubt that many if not most buildings in Japan would still be constructed to a high standard of readiness? ”

    Yes. Believe it or not, Japan has greedy, petty, short-sighted and unscrupulous business owners, just like we do here.

    • Saladdin

      Yes. Believe it or not, Japan has greedy, petty, short-sighted and unscrupulous business owners, just like we do here.

      Watusie, you are correct. However in terms of regulating for safety and disasters, Japan does much better than China does… Did your children buy any lead based toys from Japan? No, but China? Maybe.

  • quanta

    Carney — if the safety measures imposed by the government regulations made perfect economic sense, and would have been done anyway in a free market (a dubious claim, but supposing..), then what is the problem with having those regulations in the first place?

    Or is your claim that without those government regulations and building safety codes, Japan would have been even more prepared for the earthquake?

  • armstp

    Noah,

    This is a typical knee-jerk post. You are making conclusions to fit your narrative that you have no way of knowing whether you are right.

    Sorry, but there are not “hundreds dead”. I think the number will likely be in the tens of thousands.

    Why don’t you take a few minutes to breath, collect some information and then write your article based on real facts? This article just makes you and FF look bad.