The limits of safeguards and human foresight

March 13, 2011 - 0:0

Here’s the truly scary thing about the 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Honshu Island and its resulting tsunami: Japan is a country that is lauded for doing preparedness right.

Japan is a rich, high-tech nation with much rough experience of seismic rumblings: those factors have led it to plan, and plan well, for disaster, with billions spent over the years on developing and deploying technologies to limit the damage from temblors and tsunamis.
Those steps almost certainly kept the death count lower than it might otherwise be — especially in comparison with the multitudes lost in recent earthquakes in China and Haiti. Last Friday, however, showed the limits of what even the best preparation can do.
“I’m still in shock,” said Ivan G. Wong, the principal seismologist of URS Corporation in Oakland, Calif., contemplating Japan’s efforts to resist earthquake damage and its parallels to building standards in this country.
“This is really the best analogue we have for the United States,” he said, and “I’m just flabbergasted by the amount of damage we’re seeing.”
Mr. Wong noted that the Pacific Northwest is at considerable risk of a strong earthquake from the Cascadia fault, which lies off the coast under the seabed. And while the coastal zone of the Northwest does not have as much residential and business development as that slammed by the Japanese tsunami, the earthquake risks farther inland along the Pacific Northwest could well end up sustaining severe damage, he said. Nearly a thousand Oregon schools built in the last century have poor earthquake resilience, and many vulnerable dams protect urban areas in the region. Oregon is moving to shore up its schools, but the program is not slated for completion until 2032. The federal government is working to address dam issues, but the pace is deliberate, he said.
“Steps are being taken, but there’s a lot of dams, there’s a lot of fixing that needs to be done,” Mr. Wong said. “We’re decades away from being able to fix all our dams.”
The sobering fact is that megadisasters like the Japanese earthquake can overcome the best efforts of our species to protect against them. No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, warned that an earthquake in the United States along the New Madrid fault, which caused strong earthquakes early in the 19th century, could kill tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people in the more densely populated cities surrounding the Mississippi River.
All technology can do in the face of such force is to minimize damage to communities and infrastructure, he said, and “on both of those fronts, we’re never going to be perfect.”
Given the limits of steel and concrete to resist the forces of nature, much depends on people’s own preparedness to face up to disaster — but that mental infrastructure is in even poorer shape than the nation’s roads and bridges. People in the Midwest might have storm cellars to shield them from tornadoes, and those in coastal cities like New Orleans might keep a hatchet in the attic in case they have to chop their way onto their roof after a hurricane. But in most of the country, simple plans that include having a quick-grab case of supplies, medications and important family papers, as well as a plan for reuniting family members who have been separated in a disaster, are distressingly rare, Dr. Redlener said.
Dr. Redlener, the author of “Americans at Risk,” about why the United States is not prepared for megadisasters and what we be done about it, said the biggest problem is a failure to go so far as even Japan has to protect its citizens from natural disasters.
“We seem to not have the ability or the willingness to do that right now,” he said. “At a time when states are facing $175 billion in deficits and the federal government is trying to deal with very compelling issues of long-term debt and deficits, the likelihood of our being able to mobilize the resources to significantly improve disaster readiness is limited.”
And yet there are few issues as important. In a telephone press conference on Friday, W. Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Service, said, “The lesson that you learn from this is that earthquakes don’t come with a warning. And that’s why being prepared is so critical.”
Even preventable disasters, however, get short shrift because of our aversion to long-term planning and commitment, said Russell Schweickart, the former Apollo astronaut. Mr. Schweickart has spent years trying to get citizens of earth to focus the risks that many people might think of as pretty far out: asteroid impact.
Mr. Schweickart and others, however, estimate that asteroid impacts like the one that flattened 800 square miles of forest in the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908 happen every few hundred years, and should be taken seriously. Mr. Schweickart is chairman of the B612 Foundation, which advocates monitoring near-earth asteroids to find the ones that might someday strike this planet. With proper research and financing, he noted, it should be possible to divert a space rock and avoid disaster.
“The good news is, you can prevent it — not just get ready for it!” he said in an interview. “The bad news is, it’s hard to get anybody to pay attention to it when there are potholes in the road.”
Moments like the Japanese quake, Dr. Redlener said, are often referred to as “wake-up calls” that could lead to change. But after so many examples and teachable moments that lead to so little change, he argued, “it’s more like a snooze alarm” that jolts us for a moment; in no time at all, he said, we “drift back into a level of complacency.”
(Source: The New York Times)
Photo: Light planes and vehicles sit among the debris after they were swept by a tsumani that struck Sendai airport in northern Japan on Friday on March 11, 2011. (AP photo)