Magnitude 9.0 earthquake. More than 22,000 dead. Damage price tag of $235 billion.
The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake (also referred to as the Great East Japanese Earthquake) that occurred on March 11, 2011 and the tsunami that followed devastated much of Japan, and it was the most expensive natural disaster in history.
Out of the tremendous devastation that followed, however, many important lessons were learned. We’ve highlighted some of the most important ones here so you can be armed with knowledge that will help you survive if a quake hits your region.
Early warning system
Japan has arguably the world’s most advanced early warning system in the world for earthquakes and tsunamis. As soon as the first waves of the Japanese earthquake occurred and its strength was understood, tens of millions of Japanese residents received an alert via text message, e-mail or on television, to name just a few of the ways it was delivered.While the alert’s impact ranged greatly depending on how far victims were from the epicenter of the earthquake, even just a few seconds was enough time for many drivers to get off of bridges, for students to huddle under their desks and for all trains to automatically stop running.
Early warning signals save lives. As more technology users around the world subscribe to such systems or have them publicly available during the next massive quake, fewer lives will be lost.
Earthquakes not just a pacific problem
While California and Japan often get much of the press related to earthquakes and tsunamis, earthquakes have struck the rest of the United States numerous times since the country’s founding—and could again at any time. Damaging earthquakes have occurred in areas east of the Mississippi River in areas as diverse as Washington, D.C.,Tampa, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.
Perhaps most frightening thing about these EastCoast quakes is the deadliest of them—the 1886 Charleston Earthquake—occurred where no tremor had ever been felt before and claimed close to 100 lives.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was a devastating reminder about the power of earthquakes—as well as the damage that a nuclear meltdown can cause in just a matter of minutes. In response to the tragedy, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) created a list of recommendations for securing our nuclear facilities using a three-tiered, prioritized schedule. Some of the agency’s recommendations were as follows:
TIER 1 To be started immediately:
- Seismic and flood hazard reevaluations
- Station blackout regulatory actions
- Spent fuel pool instrumentation
- Stronger emergency operating procedures and severe accident management guidelines
TIER 2 To be initiated when further information is available:
- Spent fuel pool makeup capability
- Emergency preparedness regulatory actions
- Reevaluation of other external hazards (tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, etc.)
TIER 3 To be addressed after tiers 1 and 2 are completed:
- Ten-year confirmation of seismic and flooding hazards
- Potential enhancements to the capability to prevent or mitigate seismically-induced fires and floods
- Emergency response data system capability
- Emergency preparedness topics for decision-making, radiation monitoring and public education
- Pre-staging of potassium iodide beyond 10 miles
- Transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage
Many Japanese builders had the foresight to retrofit structures to survive a major earthquake, and that decision turned out to be extremely beneficial. Those buildings, located in the most affected areas of the quake, largely survived as did those inside of them.
This, however, brings up a very important point while Japan was often prepared, many of North America’s most vulnerable cities are not.
A 2011 analysis of the area off the American Northwest Coast showed that the area has been subjected to numerous major megathrust earthquakes over the past 10,000 years at 300- to 500-year intervals, with the last one occurring at least 300 years ago.
The conclusion? There is a 40-50 percent chance of a major earthquake in the next 50 years along the coast that could affect major population centers such as Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., or Vancouver. Moreover, the fact that so few earthquakes have occurred in this area recently led many builders to create structures with little thought to the damage a major quake could cause.
Disaster begets disaster
In reality, the disaster in Japan was more than an earthquake. It was a triple threat. When the earthquake first occurred, it set n motion a series of events for which Japan was not prepared. Shortly after the earthquake, a major tsunami wreaked havoc on the coastline and killed many people.More frightening, the toll of the Fukushima Disaster is not currently known, nor may it ever be known with great accuracy, because potentially thousands could die early deaths from cancer caused by high radiation exposure.
In fact, it is believed that the tsunami killed many more and caused more damage than the earthquake itself. Yet even this was expected many of the low-lying areas were prepared with early warning systems, tsunami alarms and designated high grounds that saved thousands from the more than 120-foot high waves that followed.
What happened next, however, was unexpected the complete meltdown of several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. What started off as an earthquake soon developed into one of the worst nuclear disasters since the 1986 Chernobyl accident that killed thousands.
The wake-up call
The Fukushima disaster was largely a wake-up call for the rest of the world. In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency created its “Draft Action Plan on Nuclear Safety” to strengthen nuclear emergency preparedness and radiation protection of people across the world so that the lessons learned in Fukushima are taken to heart and a similar disaster doesn’t impact another city.
The earthquake early warning system
It’s clear that the Japanese earthquake warning system saved countless lives when the quake struck. With the chance of an American quake growing by the day, the question is obvious—why don’t we have such a system in place? Soon we might. The United States Geological Survey and scientists on the West Coast are currently developing an earthquake early warning system, but the system isn’t ready to put into place just yet.
Funding shortfalls have hurt the odds of the system going live anytime soon, the L.A. Times reported in March 2012. The article noted that the Japanese system cost $1 billion to construct, and the U.S. needs another $150 million to get a similar program running.