Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 14, 2011

Japan at 72 hours inside the crisis; US at (how many?) hours out

Filed under: Catastrophes,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2011

This is the third day after the 9.0 earthquake hit off Sendai, Japan.  As of Monday evening (Japan time):

Confirmed deaths: 1597; Confirmed missing: 1481 ( At least 2000 more dead have been found, but identities are not yet confirmed.  There are thousands more whose status remains unclear.)   More than 10,000 dead continues to be the consensus projection

Number of Evacuees: Approximately 450,000.  At least 300,000 are in public shelters where water, food, and fuel are an increasing challenge.

Rough damage estimates: 63,000 buildings seriously damaged or destroyed.  Very preliminary projections suggest insurance claims of more than$35 billion.  Some sources are speaking in terms of “tens of billions” of dollars. Some reports suggest many losses were not insured.

Continuing consequences:  Rolling electrical black-outs are expected to continue through the end of April. Electricity remains unavailable to at least 1 million households nationwide.  There is a continuing nuclear emergency at the Fukushima plant.  Gasoline and other fuel supplies are falling short of demand. While well beyond the hardest-hit area,  the transportation grid in metropolitan Tokyo is operating far below capacity as a result of uncertain power supplies. Monday at its close the Tokyo Stock Exchange  fell 7.5 percent.  Disruption of power and transportation is having a ripple (ripping?) effect across wide swaths of economic life.   Late afternoon on Monday, Kyodo News Service opened it summary story with, “Confusion caused by the catastrophic earthquake and massive tsunamis spread in Japan on Monday…”   This hard hit on the world’s third largest economy is already having a significant impact on the global supply chain.

Most of the foregoing was pieced together from NHK and Kyodo News Agency reports.  See prior posts, below, for more details.


Last Wednesday I had an intense exchange with a senior government official — and friend — who argued preparing for catastrophe is a practical impossibility.  I have not heard from him since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

What I heard my friend arguing is that because catastrophic impacts are statistically improbable and thereby beyond prediction, effective preparedness is not possible.  “It’s about as helpful as earnestly preparing to win the lottery,” he said, implying it is a complete waste of time and energy, even misleading.

There are aspects of Friday’s disaster that my friend could use to reinforce his argument.  Japan has focused significant attention on preparing for a major quake elsewhere, southwest of Tokyo. Friday’s quake epicenter was off a much less populated coast about 230 miles northeast.  Further, many aspects of Japanese preparedness — from tsunami barriers to redundant nuclear systems — did not work as planned.

But I know my friend too well.  He will not be so narrow-minded.

On the day of the quake, TIME magazine stated, “Japan is arguably the world leader in readiness.”  What we are seeing in Japan is how long-term investments in well-planned, carefully engineered, and consistently exercised preparedness for catastrophe will absolutely save lives and property and will, at the same time, never be sufficient.  It is in the nature of catastrophe to surprise and to overwhelm.  But we can makes choices to reduce the scope of our surprise and the scale by which we are overwhelmed.

Catastrophe will come to the United States. Whether it will come as earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, pandemic, terrorist attack, or some other means no one knows.  But we can be sure it will come.

When the New Madrid fault shifts — and it will — the last 72 hours along the Japanese coast will seem calm and controlled in contrast.

Compared to the US, Japan has a paradoxical advantage related to catastrophe preparedness, it suffers more than its share of major disasters.  From the 1923 earthquake and urban conflagration (perhaps 150,000 fatalities), to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (perhaps 250,000 deaths), and now the March 11 triple-header, the Japanese expect to be hit hard.  Over one forty-eight year period studied, Japan experienced fourteen earthquakes measuring 7.5 and above.

A big problem for New Madrid preparedness is the 200 years since the last major shift. (It is considered past-due by most seismologists.)

Historically the US has been more fortunate, even in its worst cases. But as our population becomes more densely concentrated, our supply chains become more attenuated, and, especially, as we relocate population and productive capacity into hurricane alley, active seismic zones, and natural deserts we are self-selecting to increase our risks.

In Saturday’s Washington Post Joel Achenbach wrote an especially thoughtful piece on the Japanese earthquake.    A few excerpts with commentary:

They have long been ready for the Big One in Japan. But when it arrived Friday, it was still surprising, still utterly devastating, and it left scientists around the world humbled at how unpredictable the heaving and lurching earth can be.

The United States is not nearly as ready — not even in California — and, as a result, we have even greater cause for humility.

Quakes aren’t predictable in time, space or intensity. Hazard maps give a good sense of where something is most likely to happen… But there is an element of chaos in the way the stresses of the earth relieve themselves. And an earthquake in one place can increase strain on a fault some distance away.

The same basic notion of complexity can — and should —  be applied to a whole range of potentially catastrophic hazards.

“We do tend to focus on the expected events. We’re going to get blindsided by unusual events. . . . But uncommon events happen,” Hough said. “The analog that’s worrisome is Boston. Put a 6.1 under Boston. You have all that un-reinforced masonry.” Robert Geller, a geologist at the University of Tokyo, said by email: “The bottom line is that it’s not possible to identify in detail which specific areas are particularly dangerous. Also, quakes are not in any sense periodic. Unfortunately some earth scientists, including some government officials in both Japan and the U.S., persist in making highly area-specific risk forecasts and also using models based on periodicity of quakes.”

Apply an all-hazards frame to the quotes, the principles will still apply.  Catastrophic events are not in “any sense periodic” or “area-specific.”  Potential catastrophes are of a very different species from most emergencies or disasters.

The conversation — debate? — with my friend was cut-off prematurely.  He had to respond to an emergency. I was unable to check  a sense that  my friend’s skepticism regarding preparedness for catastrophe is directly related to his profound expertise in emergency response.   My guess is he intuitively — and correctly — perceives catastrophes are beyond effective response, and therefore beyond any typical approach to response planning, resourcing, and training.  I agree.

Catastrophic risks require a fundamentally different operational approach and especially a different strategic stance from our typical disaster management paradigm. Where emergencies and typical disasters can benefit from containment and control, this alone will only amplify the complexity of a potential catastrophe.

What we can do is:

  • Consistently work to mitigate inherited vulnerabilities;
  • Incrementally increase the  resilience of our physical, economic, political, and social environment; and
  • Encourage individuals, organizations, neighborhoods and other social webs to actively anticipate their worst cases.

More than three bullets are needed.  I will expand on these suggestions in my next regular Friday post.  My friend — I hope he is still my friend after reading this — is not alone in tending to deny what is unlikely and outside our control.  But the unlikely happens and, unless we take action in advance, it will be even more out of control than necessary.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 14, 2011 @ 6:41 am

The updates on the “front page” (and above) were as accurate as possible as of 0630 Eastern on Monday.

My professional schedule through Wednesday evening will not allow for further updating or response to your comments.

There is, of course, a lot of conflicting and unconfirmed information. For example, about 1100 hours Monday in Japan warning was briefly broadcast of another tsunami off Fukushima. It was a false alarm, but given the context (and my distance) entirely plausible.

Twenty years ago I was president of a small college in Tokyo. I became accustomed to the occasional quake, but also drilled on how to turn off the natural gas lines, take cover in door frames, or under tables.

Based on my experience in Japan, it seems to me the March 11 incident will be “catastrophic”, by which I mean it will result in a social interpretation of reality fundamentally unlike the status quo ante. (Please see more on the character of catastrophe at a prior post.)

The framing and making of this social interpretation is now underway. It is too soon to predict where it will settle on the continuum of despairing to heroic. But by the end of the week, the die could be cast.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 14, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

It is not that you don’t prepare for a Catatrophic event but not as thise post suggests or most amatuers without a sound grounding in EM. What you do is test and retest in various ways to stretch you existing resources to the maximum extent. Then you develop systems and processes to expand on this planning base with mobilization systems, logistics systems, resource support systems including prioties and allocations of scarce resource [anathema of course to the free marketers who have little or no interest in the rest of the citizenry] and you test rapid expansion, surge if you will and see how those systems functions. So far we have no idea of whether Japanese readiness included such mobilization and expansion. They did get something right–accessing their JDF [Japanese Self Defense Force] more rapidly than at the KOBE earthquake. Unfortunately, that JDF is overstretched normally and extremely small relative to the task at hand. This event requires maximum effort and mobilization of the Japanese people and will require months if not years of effort.
My faith in that effort is undiminished but it does look like if the Japanese were or are the world standard in readiness then clearly the EM function was not highly regarded. Some lives will always be saved but clearly here the losses will be heavy. But then just 700 miles offshore the US the Haitians lost a well documented 240,000. At least the Japanese have a bigger resource pool to access for this huge huge event. It will be interesting to see when exactly the first data sets are in allowing economic modeling of this catastrophic situation and its consequences.

IN the meantime a Gusty FEMA administrator decided to promote further insolvency and tragedy through Administration of the NFIP by crediting levees on flood maps that may never be completed. At least the Japanese tsunami barriers were completed event though the waves exceeded their design protection.

Where do we get such MEN? Or is it WOMEN we need to be in leadership on EM and HS? An interesting post on this blog would be the ten toughest decisions that DHS Secretaries have had to make based on any reference point including political opposition?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 2:58 am

A third Japanese reactor site has now had its explosion.

Comment by Immediate Risk Assessment: US Nuclear Facilities

March 15, 2011 @ 4:15 am

Our sincrest condolences to the wonderful and most resilient people of Japan! You are an inspiration even in this dark hour in your country’s history….

As we watch with awe at the devastation and seeing you standing in relief/food lines so patiently, expressing such admiration and compassion for one another and our seeing no looting, grocery stores giving food away until the shelves are empty, how unfortunate, yet how wonderful – kudos to each of you and God Bless you all in this time where such loss in precious Life and property and with markets plummeting early this morning….

We here in the US have some 104 facilities in 31 states – are we prepared…well, yes to sme extent as many are situated away from the ocean, yet most certainly unable to withstand a 7.5 or greater — Will we print more fiat fed reserve bills and address the immediacy of hardening these facilities asap given the 46% probability of earthquake on the west coast and even one or two in the heartland or east coast locations…We will see what has been apparently a nuclear reg commission which has allowed our vulnerabilty…

It is interesting to take a look back not 70 years, but a few short when the Enterprise was along the Japanese coast w/her sister ship and B-25s weer launched to strike at Japan’s heartland in surpise retaliation – today, how interesting and wonderful to see at leeast one carrier and six or seven other US naval vessels off the Japanese coast offering direct assistance to the peope of Japan in whatever way possible —

Here I sit at the office this early morning like most working with US and Canadian companies these past 15 months striving to make a difference in Haiti where so many still remain in tatterted tent and hurricane season quickly reapporaching — since the first hours of the Haiti disaster, making every effort to address waste water and water purification project development, offering manufacture and local employment to the good people of Haiti to manufacture “eco-friendly, earthquake resistent housing and even multi-level buildings” rainwater retention systems and solar packages and drip-irrigation expertise to grow crops where my European trading partners stand ready to buy product for export from Haiti – all such efforts to no avail, such lost opportunity, such rampant corruption and self-indulgent opportunists seeking to take advantage of the good people of Haiti and despite their resilience and genuine efforts by many of us ready with expertise and compassion, like the thousand still stuck in the mud, so are our teams – perplexed, frustrated and forced to address other contractual opportunities – even seeking $2 mln in direct “humanitarian” loan, not a handout, not a grant, but a loan so we can address the pick up aof waste and turn it into energy, to construct much needed housing to appropriate safety standard, to address prerequisite “infrastructure”

Our prayers are with the people of Japan and while it is unfortunate such a blow has come to northern Japan and to Japanese brethren everywhere, it is refreshing to humanity to see such retention in dignity, the respect you have for one another as we watch with pride our US Naval and other reach out to help in whatever way possible as we also see here 104 nuclear facilities in 31 states unprepared to meet any such catastrophic event in the way you planned and sich stringent building requirements –

This “Goldman Sachs” administration and an obviously inept government on both sides of the aisle so unprepared in so, so many ways, so much in despair, bankrupt, willing to print $100 million every month in fed reserve notes to prop up a “disney economy” as I refer to the erosion of America as we see folks willing to break into public buidlings crawling thrugh windows, dissing the insides, threatening one another, so billigerent in their demeanor, so inadequate to address a dying America which so many have sacrificed so much – the ultimate fr a freedm which is earned and comes with sacrifice — oh, the pain to see us fail so blatently, yet again, recalling devastation of war some seventy years ago and seeing cities rebuilt and commerce reestablished -with your compassion towards one another, your patience, your unwavering spirit, you will overcome this unthinkable tragedy, this devastation and let us hope — humanity — will see how people should act and treat one another w/respect and dignity!

God Bless each of you and I am hoping those of us who have been so committed to the people of Haiti will see progress and a small country rebuilt and a people who will be much more prepared for any such future scenarios thretening well being….

Thank you to Philip who once again, despite the professional and personal demands, keep us so well informed – we all appreciate you and this blog which the WH and State should have on its required reading list —

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

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