• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Get ready

    This morning’s Nikkei editorials were about earthquake preparedness. Hurricane Katrina isn’t mentioned, but having the current situation in Louisiana and Mississippi in mind while reading certainly adds heft to the warnings for Japan. The writers begin by noting that 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of Magnitude 6 or above are concentrated in the Japanese Archipelago and that, since the technology to predict earthquakes effectively doesn’t yet exist, preparation to deal with a quake immediately after it happens is our only recourse:

    The Tokyo Metropolitan District, which is supposed to be the leader in measures such as reinforcing structures against earthquakes and developing hazard maps [that predict where the greatest damage is likely to be], made major slip-ups in handling information. Serious problems for urban disaster prevention–people’s being trapped in elevators, the phenomenon in which resonance occurs between super-skyscrapers and low-frequency vibrations, and the vast numbers of people who are stranded away from their residences–have been cropping up continually.

    Looking at the situation nationwide, there are still 20,000,000 houses that are insufficiently earthquake-proofed; in areas along the ocean to the southeast and east, not even 1% of municipalities have warning and shelter systems to deal with the tsunami that an off-shore earthquake could very well cause.

    In the event of a temblor with its epicenter at the plate boundary just off the mainland, there would be something of a time lapse between the vertical P waves, which would be transmitted immediately, and the S waves from the original quake, which would follow. In the August Miyagi Prefecture quake, the gap was 14 seconds in Sendai. We should use this gap, developing as fully as possible “real-time disaster prevention,” which would allow people to seek shelter rapidly and implement safety measures on rail and gas lines.

    There are many tasks for the public sphere, including retrofitting schools and hospitals; however, in the event of an earthquake, most individuals’ fates will be determined by whether they prepared by getting their houses inspected and reinforced and by securing their furniture.

    As we’re seeing now in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, staying alive through the initial catastrophic event can be just the beginning of the battle. Tokyo’s doomsday scenario would probably be a quake at 8:30 or so on a weekday morning; during extreme weather conditions (February, early August, or right before a typhoon); and with a tsunami, which might not be kind to the parts of central Tokyo that are below sea level or built on infill. There are also, IIRC, fewer streets wide enough to serve as firebreaks than is considered advisable. Like New Orleans, Tokyo is also a port. Unlike New Orleans, it’s the economic center of the country; a few days of shutdown would affect a lot more nationwide than gas prices. If we’re fantastically fortunate, the next big Kanto earthquake won’t hit until at least rudimentary forms of prediction are available to help people brace themselves. The probability of that isn’t high, though. It’s encouraging that the defects in planning are being publicized (the elevator problem was all over the news after the Chiba earthquake last month), which is the first step on the way to addressing them.

    Added on 3 September: It was actually the Chiba earthquake right at the end of July that left people in the area trapped in elevators and highlighted that problem. I’ve fixed it above. Lots of earthquakes lately; not easy to keep them all straight.

    2 Responses to “Get ready”

    1. Joel says:

      I’ve seen a few TV news segments on earthquake early warning systems, but they don’t seem to give more than 15-20 seconds warning–just enough to get the students under their desks, but not enough for any kind of evacuation.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Right. I don’t think anyone expects to have more than 20 seconds, tops. But if, like me, you have a 6-foot-tall bookshelf, that gives you enough time to bolt out of its way. People who live in one of the gajillion ramshackle wood-framed houses can try getting under a stout table. Better than nothing (assuming you have the TV or radio on at the time).

    Leave a Reply