Nation’s unpreparedness ahead of disaster is blasted

by Jun Hongo

A month after the earthquake and tsunami obliterated cities along the Tohoku coast, Japan is struggling to limp back to some semblance of normalcy while coming to grips with the unprecedented disaster.

But critics say the country could have done more to mitigate the catastrophe.

“The tsunami and the earthquake were bigger than anything I have experienced,” said Ryohei Morimoto, an honorary member of the Association for Earthquake Disaster Prevention and a retired professor of volcanology at the University of Tokyo.

But he also pointed out that March 11 wasn’t the first time the northeast Pacific coast was visited by killer waves, including tsunami in 1611, 1896 and 1933. The geographical characteristics of the bays can amplify tsunami, such as the waves that hit in 1896, taking more than 22,000 lives.

“I’ve heard the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. say they couldn’t predict the tsunami would reach that high, but that is ridiculous,” Morimoto said, noting any history book would have set them straight.

“And even if they couldn’t predict the size of tsunami, they should have at least prepared for waves similar to those in the past,” Morimoto said.

According to the National Police Agency, the tsunami and the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the fifth-largest earthquake to occur on the planet since 1900 — had so far left 13,116 confirmed dead as of Monday and 14,377 missing — the first disaster since the war to claim more than 10,000 casualties in Japan.

The NPA also said 48,747 homes were destroyed, 56 bridges damaged and four breakwaters collapsed due to the events on March 11. Over 150,000 people are living in evacuation shelters throughout northeastern Japan, they added.

The extent of the damage prompted Emperor Akihito to record his first public message since the late Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation on Aug. 15, 1945, to announce Japan’s surrender.

“I would like to let you know how deeply touched I am by the courage of those victims who have survived this catastrophe and who, by bracing themselves, are demonstrating their determination to live on,” the Emperor said March 16 in the unprecedented TV address.

The Tohoku earthquake was one for the record books.

According to the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo, March 11 tsunami reached as high as 37.9 meters in Taro, Iwate Prefecture. The tallest ever to hit was the 38.2-meter wave that destroyed the Iwate city of Ofunato following an 8.5-magnitude temblor in 1896.

The Japan Coast Guard also revealed last week that the seabed at the epicenter of the quake, located approximately 13 km off Miyagi Prefecture, slid 24 meters and rose up 3 meters, based on its study. In total, the quake shifted Honshu more than 2 meters eastward, according to their research.

To top off the seismic impact, a survey by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory revealed that the intense shift of the Earth’s crust changed the distribution of the planet’s mass. Because of the way the fault responsible for the quake slipped, the Earth now rotates faster, making a day about 1.8 microseconds shorter than before.

How a country gets back on its feet after such a cataclysm remains to be seen, even though Japan, which lays atop different layers of tectonic plates, has survived similar disasters.

The 7.9-magnitude Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995 resulted in the loss of 6,434 lives, destroyed more than 100,000 houses and caused an estimated ¥10 trillion in damage. The port of Kobe wasn’t able to declare it had recovered from the disaster until May 1997.

Some Tohoku areas have been quick to pick up the pieces.

East Nippon Expressway Co. said March 22 it had finished emergency repairs to the region’s highways that merely days before were impassable. Japan Railways is also scheduled to complete restoration and begin running trains between Tokyo and Sendai within the week.

On the other hand, restoration of basic infrastructure has only just begun. In the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where roughly 18,000 people were living in evacuation shelters, only 137 temporary homes were under construction as of April 1, and 3,145 households had already applied for the units, the city said.

One factor that differentiates the Hanshin and Tohoku disasters is the timing of the temblor.

The Hanshin quake struck just before 6 a.m., when most people were at home and in bed.

The March 11 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. Children were in school, parents were at work and families were separated. Miyagi Prefecture said April 1 that 16 people under age 18 were listed as having lost both parents. The number in Iwate has topped 50 and is expected to grow. The welfare ministry said last week it has already tallied 82 kids who became orphans in the disaster.

Then there is the nuclear disaster that has affected not only those living in the region but has the international community in panic mode. Due to the contamination of seawater, fish caught anywhere near Japan, even those far away from Fukushima Prefecture, have been shunned at the market.

Because of the damaged nuclear plants, Tokyo Electric Power Co. on March 14 was left to launch rolling blackouts, causing a transportation crisis in the capital and halting factory operations within the region. A week later news of Tokyo tap water being contaminated with iodine-131 broke. Bottled water flew off the shelves in supermarkets while embassies and foreigners chose to evacuate from Japan.

Yet, while many lined up at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau to prepare for departure, others gave a helping hand from overseas in times of need.

The Japan Red Cross said it had received ¥139 billion from 1.5 million donations as of April 5. In contrast, it took over a year after the Hanshin quake for donations to surpass ¥100 billion, the group said. UNICEF also began raising funds for children in Japan, something it had not done since 1964.

Over 20 countries and regions, including China, South Korea and Russia, dispatched emergency rescue teams to the Tohoku region.

But support from the United States, including Operation Tomodachi, a U.S. military relief effort, saw the unprecedented engagement of approximately 14,000 service members, many from the 7th Fleet, working to aid the people hit by the quake. The U.S. Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force last week joined the response to the emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and is standing by at Yokota Air Base.

The list of lessons to be learned from March 11 is long. At the top, however, is being prepared and taking preventive steps against natural disasters, former University of Tokyo professor Morita said.

Seismologists agree the Tokai region could soon see a major temblor with a magnitude of around 8.0 that could cause damage similar to the Tohoku quake or the one that hit the Mino region in 1891. That earthquake over a century ago saw a fault line push the ground 6 meters higher than it was.

But Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration appears clueless on what steps to take.

“Liquefaction was a major issue in the city of Urayasu (Chiba Prefecture) following the March 11 earthquake, which proves landfill and man-made ground are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes,” Morita said.

Still, Kan on April 1 said one key reconstruction goal for the Tohoku region will be creating coastal areas with high ground for relocating neighborhoods to prevent further damage from the sea.

“It sounds like a bad idea to me,” Morita said. “I feel that lessons aren’t really being learned.”

Events on March 11 and beyond

March 11 Magnitude 9.0 earthquake hits off Sanriku coast, massive tsunami wreaks havoc in coastal areas in northeastern, eastern Japan.

March 12 Prime Minister Kan surveys tsunami-ravaged region from air.

March 13 Kan calls disaster postwar Japan’s “most severe crisis” and mobilizes 100,000 Self-Defense Forces members for relief efforts.

March 15 National Police Agency announces over 10,000 dead or missing. March 18 Number of victims surpasses those killed in 1995 Hanshin quake, making it worst postwar natural disaster.

March 20 NPA tally shows more than 20,000 dead or missing. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson are rescued.

April 1 Disaster officially named Great East Japan Earthquake. Kan declares plan to establish Reconstruction Design Council involving experts, local stakeholders.

April 3 SDF, U.S. military end three-day search operation in tsunami-struck region, retrieving 78 bodies.

April 7 Government envisions first extra budget worth ¥4 trillion for reconstruction. Worst aftershock of magnitude 7.1 strikes Miyagi Prefecture, elsewhere, causes widespread blackouts.

April 10 Kan visits Miyagi to inspect disaster-stricken areas.

April 11 Tally shows over 13,100 dead, over 14,300 missing.