This is what preparedness looks like.

A really good post laying out the basics of Japan’s response to the earthquake and tsunami.

The thing we need to bear in mind (other than the fact that Japan is a very long country, and most parts of it are hundreds of miles from the epicenter) is that there is no place in the world better-prepared for seismic trouble than Japan. Read through that post. Read about the checklists. Read about the architecture and the failsafes and the emergency warning systems. This is still a tragedy and a disaster, and no amount of human planning can completely mitigate that; ultimately, the planet is stronger than we are. But this would be a much larger tragedy and disaster if they hadn’t been ready for it. (Even the situation at the Fukushima reactors isn’t as bad as it could have been, though I can’t confirm if the writer of that post is right about the scale of leakage there. I hope he is.)

Remember this, the next time some politician in your locality or nation proposes cutting funding for emergency preparedness, be it earthquake, tornado, hurricane, volcano, blizzard, or whatever. It’s an easy cut to make in the short term, when you’re trying to make a political point about “fiscal responsibility.” But I put that inside sarcasm quotes because what you’re really doing is gambling that nothing bad is really going to happen, and sooner or later, you lose that bet. Japan knows better than to gamble on that; they’re home to some absurdly high percentage of the world’s earthquakes. But other countries — like the U.S. — aren’t so sensible, and places like New Orleans pay the bill.

I want to be more like Japan. I live in California, and I want to believe my state is equally ready for when the Hayward Fault blows. But I don’t think we are.

0 Responses to “This is what preparedness looks like.”

  1. beccastareyes

    Things like this make me thankful for good civil engineers and the money to let them do their jobs, plus whoever does things like ‘let us prepare for an earthquake’.

    It looks bad, it was bad, but it could have been a lot worse.

    • beccastareyes

      ETA: I don’t mean to be flippant, since a lot of people did die, but it was something that impressed me watching from here — how many people did survive and how much infrastructure still is working to help those who did lose their homes or were injured.

      • Marie Brennan

        Exactly. And it’s worth acknowledging, because the U.S. media both loves sensationalism and doesn’t understand Japan (even on the basic level of geography), so it’s easy to make it sound like the entire country has fallen apart. It hasn’t, and we don’t do them any favors or respect by missing that point.

  2. starlady38

    Great post saying a lot of things most people don’t realize because English-language media are sensationalizing.

    As of now the radiation levels at the plant have risen well beyond the levels the writer quotes, but the rate isn’t constant and the levels have been decreasing between bursts of venting the reactors. Outside the immediate area of the plant levels are still far below the level of the exposure gained on an international flight (as of this second on NHK, they’re quoting 23.72 microSieverts in Iwaki city in Fukushima; the flight from Tokyo to New York carries an exposure of 190 microSieverts).

    • Marie Brennan

      I hope it turns out more Three-Mile Island than Chernobyl. My physics teacher, when we did our unit on radiation, explained that most people affected by the United States’ worst nuclear disaster got more radiation by watching color TV for a year.

      I have no doubt that the people at the Fukushima plant are taking a very bad hit, and like the emergency workers at Chernobyl, I’m awed to the point of tears by their courage. I hope it brings success, and they save the surrounding area from anything worse.

      • starlady38

        Yeah, those 50 people are real heroes.

        The thing about using Chernobyl and Three Mile Island as your range is that there’s a very wide range in there. I don’t think it’s possible for Fukushima to get as bad as Chernobyl, and the longer Tepco can keep it together, the less likely that becomes.

        • Marie Brennan

          I was noticing that the nuclear event scale goes from zero to seven, and we’re already at a five or maybe six — but then I had to remind myself that four is when they start to employ radiation countermeasures (and even then it’s only local food controls). So yeah, the scale covers quite a wide scale.

          I don’t know if it can get as bad as Chernobyl — it worries me that there are multiple reactors in trouble — but I hope the various problems get under control soon.

  3. dsmoen

    Great link! Here’s a small bit about what Apple retail stores in Japan were doing after the quake. A bit of misinformation about the overall environment (as not all elevators wree out in Tokyo, for example, nor were all aftershocks serious), but still cool overall.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. Your comment got screened because it sounded too much like spam. 🙂

      Good link, though. Japanese corporations, from what I know of them, tend to be very, very good about that kind of communal response, and it’s nice to hear that Cupertino is backing them up.

  4. ckd

    After the 2001 Nisqually quake it turned out that a FEMA program (Project Impact) to identify disaster preparedness and mitigation work and then bring it about in cooperation with local authorities had probably saved lives; among the completed projects was a seismic retrofit to a school’s attic water tank.

    The Bush administration cut funding for the program on the day of the quake.

    (That’s on top of getting rid of the actual emergency management expert that Clinton had put in charge of FEMA and bringing in his oh-so-qualified campaign manager. When that guy quit, he recommended his old buddy Michael “I quit the horse association before they could fire me” Brown.)

    • Marie Brennan

      And then the conservative noise machine went to work making people afraid of FEMA, which is (or ought to be) one of the most unalloyed good things a federal government can do for its citizens.

  5. wldhrsjen3

    THANK YOU for this post. While my heart aches for the people of Japan, I am also cheering them on. They are prepared, organized, motivated, and highly capable people – this disaster is TERRIBLE and nothing can mitigate the losses they’ve suffered – but it could have been so much worse. I’d say, given the circumstances, they are handling things with as much energy and grace as possible. It drives me crazy watching the American mainstream media pandering to the sensational, using alarmist language to describe things they blatantly DO NOT UNDERSTAND. The nuclear situation is especially frustrating – my dad is a well-regarded nuclear engineer so I tend to take comments like “This could be another Chernobyl!” personally.

    But yes – I hope our country recognizes the importance of preparation and I hope cuts aren’t made to long-term technology developments that might maintain the integrity of our power grid and infrastructure in a disaster.

    • Marie Brennan

      Thanks to my physics teacher, I understand the difference between the type of reactor built at Chernobyl and the types of reactors we use now. Nuclear power is dangerous, yes — but so are coal and natural gas, and we’ve come a long way in reactor safety since the 1980s. (But to my mind, it’s all a very good argument for natural energy sources: solar, wind, geothermal, etc.)

      • wldhrsjen3

        Nuclear power is dangerous, yes — but so are coal and natural gas, and we’ve come a long way in reactor safety since the 1980s. (But to my mind, it’s all a very good argument for natural energy sources: solar, wind, geothermal, etc.)

        Yes! I totally agree. My husband and I are actually looking at taking our farm off the energy grid as far as possible. There are government grants available (or used to be, anyway – we’ll see what the latest budget iterations look like) for households wanting to connect to private wind generators here (cute little windmills!) and I am hoping we’ll be approved sometime in the not-too-distant future. The initial cost of installation is expensive, but I like the idea of providing as much of our own power as possible, and doing it without hurting the environment. We already have a geothermal heat pump which saves us hundreds of dollars in heating and cooling costs.

        • Marie Brennan

          I was going to say that we know better than to use Chernobyl-style graphite moderated reactors anymore — then I decided I should double-check that point, and holy crap, there’s still some operating in Russia. With improved safety systems, and I do understand that building new reactors ain’t cheap . . . but ye gods. I was happier when I thought they’d all been decommissioned.

          • wldhrsjen3


            I may be misremembering, but iirc the last graphite reactors were taken off line, and then due to rising energy consumption and the increased costs of construction they were brought back into production.

            I’ll check to see if I’m mistaken.

            Scary though.

  6. lindenfoxcub

    Here in Winnipeg, in 1969 we had a premier with the bright idea of building a very large and very expensive diversion, the red river floodway, to protect the city from spring floods. It was very controversial, and people laughed at it and called it duffy’s ditch. After the flood of 1997, people didn’t laugh at it anymore, and since it was built, it’s now been expanded and raised. It cost millions, but it’s saved and estimated 10 billion dollars in damage over the years. It’s looking like it’s going to go into use again this year too.

    It’s been really interesting, through the tragedy, to see what a difference preparedness makes in a situation like this. I bet if it had happened in a 3rd world country, the number of casualties would be exponentially higher.

    Times like this make me want to write a story about a natural disaster; only in a fantasy setting. It’s not something that gets handled in genre fiction much. I’d just need a plot.

    • Marie Brennan

      Compare against the Port-au-Prince earthquake a year ago, or the tsunami in India. Japan’s casualties have been much lower so far.

      Preparedness is like any other kind of insurance. It costs money up front, and as a result, not everyone can afford it, even though that means they’ll be paying an even larger bill further down the line. But if you can afford it, then it’s flat-out stupid not to pay.

  7. d_c_m

    I like this post and thanks for writing it. It is fiscally to prepare for disaster.

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