Lessons from the Great Japanese Earthquake of 2011
Previously published on Mar 23, 2011
The Great Japanese Earthquake of 2011 is one more crisis in a series of historic disasters that have so far defined the third millennium. Although uncommon to see so much emotion from this often stoic culture, the unfolding tragedy reveals the strength of the Japanese People. Facing the aftermath of a terrifying 9.0 magnitude quake, a supercharged tsunami, and a potential nuclear threat comparable to Chernobyl, even Japan will need help from the International Community for some time, yet they will recover. The tragedy caused much damage with a death toll in the ten thousands, but the pain could have been worse while there are lessons we must learn from this experience.
The Earthquake was so powerful it literally pushed the HonshÅ« Island eight feet away from Asia. Having lasted almost five minutes with over 200 aftershocks, at least as powerful as the 2010 Haitian and Mexican quakes, the amount of energy released alone should have leveled almost every manmade structure across the Eastern Coast of Japan and pushed the death toll up by at least a magnitude. If not for their meticulous preparation, the Japanese People would be experiencing a far darker outcome. Strict regulation and smart building technology saved lives. The world should look to Japanese architecture as a standard and praise it as a success.
What we can learn from buildings that both survived and failed during the quake is what improvements might be made to designs. The strength of the Earthquake tested the limits of these structures, so now we can better understand where they were weakest. Recovery for Japan means their infrastructure can be improved upon while the rest of the world should realize the need for stronger infrastructure exists. Because old building were retrofitted to withstand massive seismic activity, and did, this disaster must motivate earthquake prone communities to upgrade, even if they cannot invest in all new quake resistant towns and cities.
Unfortunately, it appears most of the catastrophic damage done was caused by the resulting tsunami, though the ability to escape still standing structures certainly reduced the death toll. The Japanese People have learned their sea walls have limits, even when they are in the right places. The lesson is that sometimes we have no defense against nature. Some structures can be built to withstand tsunamis, but such building is cost prohibitive on a national scale, especially given Japan's economic troubles. Strategic planning can help save more lives in tsunami zones lacking close high ground through the use of novel tsunami resistant community centers that can be reached in minutes.
Meanwhile, the reality is that Japan has few natural resources, so it must rely on nuclear power. Leaders and activities across the globe are, however, already using the crisis surrounding the aged, outmoded Fukushima nuclear plant to push their agendas forward, including those in Germany and China. Of course, we now know some critical limits of these installations, but we have also learned even aged power plants can take a serious punch while we are learning more about how we might contain a failing reactor. Consequently, this nuclear crisis actually offers us a chance to embrace nuclear power with improved safety features gained through experience.
Preparedness and the calm, orderly temperament of the Japanese People served them well during the onslaught of the crisis. Unlike most other countries, Japan was well-prepared for both a massive earthquake and tsunami, thus lives were saved. Unfortunately, the force of nature unleashed on this technologically advanced nation was so great it left a large part of its main island indistinguishable from a Third World country facing the same scenario. As terrible as this humanitarian crisis has become, a seemingly distant tomorrow will bring better times. Looking at the devastation at hand, we must learn, so the next great earthquake, massive tsunami, or nuclear disaster costs fewer lives.