COMMENT: Disaster science and management failed in Japan

Dale Dominey-Howes
Thursday, 17 March, 2011
Dale Dominey-Howes *

Television images of blank-faced wandering children and adults weeping in grief or stunned into disbelief are heartbreaking. The humanitarian dimensions of Japan's worst natural disaster in nearly a century are almost unimaginable.

We knew that a tragic outcome was inevitable after seeing the horrifying aerial footage of tsunami waves ploughing relentlessly through coastal towns in northern Japan. Whoever and whatever the massive earthquake spared, the tsunami obliterated.

Now we watch and wait in horror as the possibility of a third, connected catastrophe — a nuclear disaster — casts another deep, dark shadow across those unfortunate communities.

It will take weeks for authorities to enact their post-disaster responsibilities – search and rescue, provision of emergency shelter, food, water and medicines. It will be weeks to months before engineers can check the structural integrity of every building to determine which are safe to reoccupy and which must be knocked down. Getting essential services and infrastructure repaired and rebuilt will take longer still. With devastation over such a wide area, reconstruction of towns and recovery to a more normal life will take years. The psychological impacts will last much longer.

With emotions running high and communication lines damaged, information is scant and difficult to come by. Not surprisingly, misunderstanding and misinformation are rife.

That said, even at this early stage important questions are beginning to emerge.

We hear frequently that Japan is very used to large earthquakes and is one of the best-prepared countries in the world to deal with such events. Yet this one caught Japan by surprise and, as a natural hazards and disaster management expert, I am dismayed by this.

It's certainly true that Japan is well used to large magnitude earthquakes, sitting as it does on the "Pacific Ring of Fire". It's also true that last Friday's magnitude 8.8 quake was a "great earthquake" – as quakes between magnitude eight and 10 on the Richter scale are described.

Even so, the extent of the damage and the severity of the impacts are shocking.

From a disaster management perspective, Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Authority plans for much larger earthquakes – events with a magnitude of nine or more. Tokyo, the world's largest city with more than 30 million residents, is at serious risk of a major earthquake. In fact, seismologists forecast that there is a 70 per cent chance of an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 or above occurring within the Tokyo metro region sometime in the next 30 years. Such an event would dwarf the current disaster in comparison.

With such a high probability, building engineering codes are supposed to be very rigorous and the disaster management plans are apparently well developed and frequently tested in Japan. Those plans have failed. Consequently, we can immediately reflect on some significant lessons.

This calamity is a potent reminder – and we do need to be reminded - that earthquakes and tsunamis are unstoppable forces of nature. Disaster science and planning are therefore critical for safeguarding at-risk populations.

Ask any hazard/disaster scientist what is the probability that an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear accident would occur, the answer would be "very low" or lower. But now we know that the probability is not zero and management plans need to be amended accordingly.

Second, even though seismologists know Japan is at risk from even larger earthquakes than the one last Friday, it has still exceeded Japan's response capability.

Third, while Japan has the world's most sophisticated tsunami early warning system, the warnings could not be given soon enough for many people to evacuate. Japan also has built massive physical infrastructure designed to protect coastal communities, yet those protective measures were in many cases overwhelmed and useless.

If the operators of the Fukushima nuclear power plant were confident about their risk-management plans in the event of an earthquake-tsunami, they were badly misguided. Those plans were far from okay.

Even allowing for the advanced age of the plant, it seems inexplicable that its safety systems had not been upgraded sufficiently to take account of current knowledge and standards. Not only did it apparently suffer physical damage from the earthquake, but its back-up power sources failed. There was no solid plan B or plan C. Instead of safely generating electricity and contributing to the recovery, the plant's flaws have compounded the misery, disruption and concern. Worse may yet be said of it.

What we can say for sure is that this event shows us that current disaster science and management are failing. If they failed in Japan — one of the world's most technologically advanced countries and one that supposedly planned for events larger than last Friday's — it is time to ask some hard questions about disaster science and the management plans based on this science.

Why were the impacts so severe? Poor planning? Corruption? Flawed science? Can we really trust what the experts tell us? If complacency on the part of Japanese disaster managers and governments was a factor, how can we be sure that we are not equally complacent? Is our preparedness for major natural disasters any better?

* Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes is co-director Australian Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales.