Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 20, 2011

Japanese preparedness and response: Update and a few deniable hypotheses

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2011

The image above displays different levels of March 11 quake intensity (circles) superimposed on population density. Red star is epicenter. Darkest blue is Tokyo region.  The large arc of an island extending across most of the picture is Honshu.  The island at the top is Hokkaido.  The northern third of Honshu is traditionally known as Tohoku (literally meaning northeast).  Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Most of the following was posted as of Sunday evening in Japan, some updates made at 0600 Monday US Eastern time (Monday evening in Japan):

Dead: 8133    Missing: 12, 272 (Kyodo)

Injured: 2611 (OCHA)

Evacuees in public shelters: 360,000 (Kyodo)

Buildings damaged or destroyed: 117,000 (USAID)

Without regular water service: 2.3 million people (COE)

Without electricity: 289,000 households (713,000 plus people) (OCHA)

Aftershocks: 290 and at least one separate 6.1 earthquake (USGS)

Late Sunday the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released Situation Report 9.

The situation at hospitals that have been without tap water, electricity and gas since the earthquake struck remains a concern. Many hospitals are trying to keep patients alive without water or electricity. Some hospitals have reported reducing the number of meals and procedures provided. They fear that lives saved from the earthquake will now be lost due to the shortages of doctors and medicine. There is also a shortage of medicines for people with chronic conditions in the evacuation shelters. Several reports of hypothermia, serious dehydration and respiratory diseases in the shelters. The focus is now on keeping the elderly alive and healthy. (OCHA)

The cold weather has eased slightly but the Japan Meteorological Agency warned that freezing temperatures will return in the Tohoku region on 20 March, and be followed by heavy rains on 21 March. Unseasonably cold weather is expected to continue beyond 22 March. The Agency has also issued a flood alert for the earthquake affected coastal regions during the spring tides from the 18 – 26 March and in particular for Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi where the ground has sunk 75cm.

Approximately 94 percent of main roads reaching affected coastal areas had been repaired as of March 19, with additional repairs ongoing in affected areas, according to the GoJ.  In addition, six previously damaged sea ports are now operational and the Sendai airport is open for a limited number of emergency and humanitarian flights. (USAID)   Two main highways are still reserved for emergency vehicles only. (COE)

The current GOJ guidance for securing emergency supplies: Evacuation centers will send requests to municipalities, and the prefecture will consolidate these requests  and liaise with the national government. Then, the national government will request relief items  and food from the private sector and other municipalities, which will be consolidated at SDF  sites and transported by the SDF to affected areas. (COE)  This system is not yet having wide-spread effectiveness.  According to Sunday’s Washington Post, “Eight days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake sent a merciless wall of water crashing onto Japan’s northeastern coast, a city once noted for its jazz festival and expansive joie de vivre is reduced to foraging for basic necessities. The descent of a vibrant metropolis toward a state of simple survival has helped numb the population to a further agony. Many here are too preoccupied with day-to-day needs to focus on unseen dangers leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant down the coast.” Personal note: It is my impression — but evidence is not yet conclusive — that the government’s effort to establish a parallel, or even replacement, supply chain is suppressing the supply capacity available in Japan.

The GoJ has announced temporary power cuts across the nation, following the reduction in output or the closure of 11 of 50 nuclear generators located in affected areas. The government warned that rolling blackouts would begin March 14 and are expected to last until at least the end of April.  (COE)

The construction of temporary housing for the evacuees has started in Rikuzen-Takada City and Kamaichi City, in Iwate Prefecture. In Rikuzen-Takada, 36 structures are planned for the end of this month, and 200 in total afterwards, while about 100 structures are to be built in Kamaishi, Ofunato, Iwate and Sohma, and Fukushima. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, estimates 8,800 temporary houses are needed in Iwate, 10,000 in Miyagi and 14,000 in Fukushima for the short-term. The Government has requested a consortium of constructors to build at least 30,000 in two months. (OCHA)

According to Reuters, Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano said that the economic damages from the disaster would exceed 20 trillion yen (US$248 billion). The 1995 Kobe earthquake caused some US$100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. Citigroup estimated 5-10 trillion yen in damages to housing and infrastructure while Barclays Capital estimates economic losses of 15 trillion yen (US$183.7 billion). Goldman Sachs estimated total economic losses to be 16 trillion yen. (US$198 billion) (Reuters, March 19)USB expects Japan’s economy to grow 1.4 percent this year, compared to a previous forecast of 1.5 percent and also upgraded its growth forecast for next year to 2.5 percent, up from a previous estimate of 2.1 percent. (Reuters)

Crisis Commons has established a data aggregation site focused on Japan. It is being constantly updated and expanded.  ReliefWeb continues to be a very rich source of background and situational awareness.


It has taken much longer than the oft-discussed 72 hours, but nine-to-ten days after the earthquake-and-tsunami a reasonably clear picture of the situation in Northeast Japan is beginning to emerge.  The clarity will increase with each passing day, as should our sense of the profound scope and scale.  This is how a rich, resilient, and well prepared society can still be knocked very hard.

It is, I think, premature to reach many risk readiness conclusions.  While the amount of information available is really amazing, differences of language and culture can obscure our understanding.  The vast amounts of information may even distract from our sense of meaning.

But it is not too soon to begin framing some questions.  Even as those on the ground are organizing themselves to serve the survivors, how can we organize observations to enhance our chance of future survival.  A few questions of particular personal interest:

Resupply of the affected areas has been slow.  What factors contributed most to the delay: Unavailability of supply? Damage to transportation infrastructure? Uncertainty about the status of transportation infrastructure? Reduced availability of fuel?  Uncertainty about availability of fuel? Weather complications? Unwillingness of truckers and other elements of the logistical system to enter the impact area?  Refusal of officials to allow truckers and others to enter?  Efforts to establish effective command-and-control?

My deniable hypothesis: All the above contributed, but I perceive the command-and-control mentality had (and is having) a particular impact.

While the total number of dead is likely to be above 20,000, given the roughly 1.4 million in the tsunami target zone alone, this is a considerably better outcome than might be expected.  What saved lives:  infrastructure, information, training?  Family reunification is a big question for US catastrophic preparedness, what is the Japanese policy/strategy in this regard?  What was the population’s behavior in this regard?  Who died?  It seems to me there is evidence to suggest that the elderly died in disproportionate numbers.  Was this a matter of mobility?  Information?  Training?  Isolation?

My deniable hypothesis: The wider an individual’s social web especially at the critical moment of threat, the more likely their survival.

At least from this distance, there has been a strange sort of slow-motion decision-making in regard to both the tsunami response and dealing with the nuclear emergency.  For example, I am neither a firefighter nor a nuclear specialist, but I was pushing use of Tokyo’s high-rise firefighting equipment at Fukushima 48 hours before it happened.  Based on my experience in Japan I wonder about the influence of hierarchical cultural patterns.  To what extent were people waiting for orders? Waiting for instructions?  Using the Cynefin framework, how did participant-observers define their problem: was it complicated, complex, or chaotic?

Two deniable hypotheses: The situation after 2:46  Japan time on March 11 was “chaotic”.   Most participants and decision-makers in Japan treated the situation as “complicated.”  See Cynefin Framework for definition of terms.

I doubt this next hypothesis is deniable (or able to be confirmed), but I would certainly value evidence leaning either way:  Going into Wednesday and Thursday (March 16 and 17) public attitudes seemed to be building toward a substantial shadow evacuation of the Tokyo area.  Thursday night, in response to urgent requests from the government, a spontaneous electrical blackout was avoided through voluntary public action.  Did the success of this social solidarity short-circuit the fear and uncertainty behind the evacuation fever?  In any case, from Friday morning forward I perceive the shadow evacuation threat has dimmed.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 20, 2011 @ 6:46 am

Phil! This a terrific post for numerous reasons too numerous to list at the moment. So many thanks for this effort.
But Phil despite all the maps and geography links I need to understand what they mean more specifically. For example many blogs and lists talk of nation-wide electric supply but I have always viewed Japan as a largely island chain with much seaborne traffic even for essentials. So it would be helpful if I understand more correctly the geography of the impacted area. Why is it just not referred to as the Honshu Earthquake since it looks like direct and indirect impacts largely focused on the Japanese largest Island? And what are the prefectures impacted and what are the major concerns in each? And I keep getting info indicating that even Tokoyo itself is having recurring problems. No immediate rush but if you could help me understand that would be helpful. What are the biggest threats to the other Japanese islands from this event? If none could they be mobilized to support Honshu? Mutual aid so to speak? Exactly what has the government mobilization consisted of so far on Honshu and in the other islands?

I know! I know! A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 20, 2011 @ 7:31 am

Bill, I have added a map to the post that I hope will help you and others.

I would also suggest accessing a new map from UNOSAT that displays specific impact on Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture, the coastal area closest to the epicenter. (large file)

The rest of the nation — including the integrated electrical grid — is absolutely being mobilized. But I am out of time for more detail now.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 20, 2011 @ 7:43 am

Thanks Phil exactly what I was hoping you could come up with!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 21, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

Bill, Further to your questions related to seaborne traffic and impact of the crisis, please see the following story from an international logistics publication:


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 21, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

While the damages from the KOBE earthquake may have been $100B US the Japanese spent well over $200B on reconstruction and improvements.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 22, 2011 @ 3:06 am

With numbers approaching $250B in direct damages could this end up being the first 1 Trillion response, reconstruction, reconstitution, and recovery disaster? I believe it is accurate that the 1970 US dollar is now worth about $.07! So a list of disasters adjusted for perhaps the 1970 dollar or adjusted somehow should be developed and perhaps has been. Ususually WARS are listed by total battle deaths and civilian deaths and perhaps now even WAR as Disaster should be added to the list of disasters adjusted for present dollars in some way. Oddly Howard Kunreuhter, PhD at Wharton’s Risk Center has done the most work on disaster economics but my belief is there is no actual concensus on economic impacts of disasters and whether they can act as a stimulus when private public dollars are totalled.

Of course economic MAN and Social and Cultural MAN often don’t seem to understand each other except for the enormity of the gulf between those suffering the loss and those acting only as largely observers or outsiders. Perhaps mankinds ability to pretend that it cannot ever happen to me is the real reason preparedness does not get accomplished for the most part. Lack of preparedness not preparedness seems to be mankind’s fate and choice.

Comment by Tom Russo

March 22, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

I sat in on a teleconference on the Japan Earthquake for HSIN-HPH Users and Sector Partners hosted by HHS to update on the situation in Japan, some of which was described above. But equally interesting was hearing from U.S. private sector partners and the impact on the supply chains. Concern was expressed with not only checking incoming food supply for radiation contamination but as well pharma products and even medical devices. This was the health and public health CIP sector.

Locally here along the east coast, frontline staff people are seeking preparedness information not unlike what Chris was asking last week. Its good to see preparedness mindset become a norm for those we work with and have trained over the past several years.

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