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.
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.