Catastrophic earthquakes are inevitable, a certainty of life on earth as unavoidable as the seasons. We’re not yet very good at predicting them, but we’d better get much at better at being ready.
The Sendai disaster in Japan is both a warning alarm and a potentially priceless lesson. When an earthquake like this hits another major population center —and it will — the death toll will almost surely be orders of magnitude larger. Such a quake in Jakarta or Istanbul or even Los Angeles would destroy far more buildings, and thus take more lives as well.
Japan is a model of smart engineering and disciplined practice. Having lived with the inevitability of destructive earthquakes for millennia, they’ve taken seriously lessons most societies shrug off.
For a long time, Japan’s primary way of coping was to build matchstick-and-paper houses that did relatively little damage in collapsing and were likewise easy enough to replace. As geology and structural engineering knowledge increased, so did the capacity to prepare better. Japan is the world leader in doing so.
Alaska’s Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 was even bigger than Sendai’s, with a 9.2 reading, but its destruction fell across a mostly unpopulated landscape and thus killed only 131 people. Twenty-one years later, Mexico City’s far less powerful quake (Alaska’s was 10 times stronger) left an estimated 10,000 people dead. In 2008 the even smaller Sichuan quake in China killed 70,000 by official count, and many believe it claimed far more.
The range of variables involved makes it impossible to speak with scientific confidence about all the anomalous death totals, but from a public policy perspective a few common sense observations demand attention.
For one thing, Anchorage was just lucky. I was there that March afternoon, a 13-year old waiting on the street outside a downtown movie theater to be picked up by mom. The quake occurred on Good Friday, a school holiday, which doubtless saved hundreds of lives. Several empty schools were devastated and fatalities there and in public buildings surely would have been much greater on a work day. Knowledge of substrata soils and building codes was scant in the booming frontier town, and property destruction was widespread. Still, only a handful of the 131 fatalities attributed to the quake were in the state’s largest city. The lack of preparedness and warning systems made the subsequent tsunami far more deadly.
A good friend who lived in Mexico City and spent days on search and rescue after the 1985 disaster remembers how he was struck by incongruous examples of adjacent building with hugely different levels of damage. One skyscraper would stand entirely in tact while a neighboring building collapsed to complete (and deadly) ruin. One key difference: privately owned buildings tended to survive, while the biggest death traps were government facilities. The likely culprit? Corruption that meant government projects didn’t follow the building codes private owners insisted on, and thus they shook and fell.
The March 11 quake centered offshore from Sendai, Japan by contrast seems likely to result in far fewer deaths; more than a day after the main shock, fewer than a thousand of the millions in its path were confirmed dead. That will certainly grow considerably, but also seems certain to total far fewer than similar quakes in Mexico, China and elsewhere.
Japan’s buildings are constructed to very high engineering standards specifically designed to withstand earthquakes. Tsunami warning systems are advanced and widespread. Japanese people are educated and drilled in survival skills, and apparently they apply those lessons when needed most.
The conclusion, even at this cursory level of analysis, seem clear.
Deaths from major earthquakes can be reduced hugely by smart planning and preparation. Sadly, I’d bet most societies are unable or unwilling to apply those safety lessons with rigor, and will instead hope, like Anchorage, to get lucky. Not all of them will.