Guest post today from Lisa Shoreland, a blogger that grew up in Japan.
When I moved into my first apartment, I filled one of my two bathroom tubs with water and stashed a box of bottle water, canned food, dry rations, a wind-up radio, and matches beneath the bathroom sink. My roommate walked in and, with a perplexed look on her scrunched up face, asked, “What are you doing?”
“For earthquakes,” I replied, scrunching my nose up, too. “What else?”
“Honey, we don’t get earthquakes here. We get tornadoes.”
Having grown up in an island country that takes the brunt of more than 20% of the world’s earthquakes, it never occurred to me that on the east coast of the United States, I’d never really have to worry about them again. Still, it was a similar culture of preparedness that likely saved thousands of lives in the recent 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami in northeastern Japan. More importantly, it was the government’s willingness—and economic ability—to face the reality of it being situated in the Ring of Fire rather than burrowing its head in the sand and hoping for the best.
Culture of Preparedness
Japan’s history is one littered with deadly earthquakes. It is a developed country at the head of the technology race. Put two together and you have a country that, having learned its lesson from the disastrous 1995 quake in Kobe, spends its money using technology to protect its people from inevitable earthquakes in the following ways:
- Reinforcing buildings in metropolitan areas so they move with the earth rather than against it
- Rigging trains so they stop when an earthquake of any magnitude strikes, so it doesn’t derail
- Selling disaster preparation kits (which near 60% of the population owns, according to a survey)
- Drilling citizens from kindergarten to the Tokyo workplace to duck under desks and doorways
- Switching television channels to live broadcast in the event of a large quake
- Testing a city-wide loudspeaker system in Tokyo at 5:00 p.m.
“They get a magnitude earthquake of 7 or 8 every decade,” says Kit Miyamoto, president of a structural engineering firm based in California, “so, naturally, they get good at it.”
However much I’d like to reference my Japanese mother (who at any point in time has an entire cellar full of rice, canned goods, water, matches, and who-knows-what), Japan’s earthquake preparedness isn’t just a cultural mindset. It is, unfortunately, an economic matter.
Money Saves Lives
“Basically, when you have an earthquake in developing countries, they die,” says Roger Bilham, a geologist at the University of Colorado. “In the developed countries, they pay.”
This sad truth explains why disasters in places like Haiti, for having gone through only a 7.0 earthquake, resulted in 300,000 deaths. Similarly, an 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan, China caused shoddy buildings to crush near 90,000 people, leading to complaints of corruption.
“A country as poor as Haiti isn’t going to put its money into seismic retrofitting,” says Raymond Pestrong, a geologist at San Francisco State University.
Still, countries with money can easily get complacent. Earthquake risk consultant Mary Lou Zoback says while retrofitting a home to better withstand an earthquake would cost the average household less money than installing granite countertops, most people choose aesthetics over safety. “The federal government has built an expectation—don’t worry, someone is going to be there to bail you out. Unfortunately, that kind of perspective actually prevents us from becoming as prepared and as self-reliant as we should be.”
Bio: Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she’s been researching stafford loans as well as how compare student loans. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing, taking weekend trips, and practicing martial arts.