Events unfolding in and around Sendai – indeed, across the whole of Japan – are tragic beyond describing. More than 10,000 are thought to be dead, and the toll continues to rise. Economists estimate the losses at some $180B, or more than 3% of GDP. This figure is climbing as well. Nuclear reactors, the mainstay of Japanese electrical power? Badly damaged, leaking radioactive material into the air, and adding a technological dimension to the natural upheaval. The images are profoundly moving. Most of us can only guess at the magnitude of the suffering on the scene. Dozens of aftershocks, each as strong as the recent Christchurch earthquake or stronger, have pounded the region. At least one volcanic eruption is underway nearby. All this besetting a country already struggling with two decades of deflation, domestic political turmoil, and a rapidly aging demographic. Aid is on its way from around the world, but the scale and nature of the current response seem puny compared with the need.
What are the lessons in Sendai for the rest of us? Many will emerge over the days and weeks ahead. Most of these will deal with particulars: design and construction practice for nuclear reactors, for example. Improvement and extension of warning systems. Chances are you have your own list. But two lessons seem over-arching. At first blush, they might seem trite and overworked. But bear with me…
How hackneyed is that? But the fact is, though we accomplish this when it comes to accidents, such as plane crashes, we don’t do this very well with respect to so-called natural hazards. We have split personalities in this respect. The plane goes down, and the relevant players immediately mobilize to pinpoint a cause and/or contributing factors, and to identify and implement a fix. And – speaking of relevant players – just about everyone leaps into action! Let’s say an American Airlines plane is involved in a mishap. The folks at United, or Lufthansa, or Nippon Air don’t just go about their business. They learn from the event. Even if Airbus equipment was involved, Boeing is tracking the incident, taking notes. By contrast the flood, or tsunami, or hurricane hits, and our every instinct is to rebuild as before.
Now there is indeed a little notice of the Sendai event here in the States. But a big piece of the concern is for the nuclear plants we have here. Are they located on or near fault zones or coastlines? Well, yes, in some instances. Are the containment vessels weak or is the facility aging, just as in Japan? Again, yes. So they’re coming under scrutiny. But the effect of the tsunami itself on coastal communities? We’re shrugging our shoulders.
It’s reminiscent of those nature films, You know the ones I’m talking about. We watch fascinated as the wildebeests cross the rivers, where the crocodiles lie in wait. Or where the pride of lions roils up the herd and then brings down one of the aging or weak. A few minutes of commotion, and then the surviving gnus, the ones who’ve made it with their calves to the other side return to business-as-usual. They’ll cross that same river en masse next year, same time, playing Russian roulette with the crocs.
In point of fact, if we spent as much energy focusing on the lessons to be learned from Sendai as we spend on repressing that sense of identification or foreboding, we’d be demonstrably better off.
Which brings us to the second lesson.
It should be obvious from Sendai, or Katrina, or this past summer’s flooding in Pakistan, or the recent earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, that what we often called recovery isn’t really that at all. Often the people in the directly affected area don’t recover, do they? The dead aren’t revived. The injured don’t always fully mend. Those who suffer loss aren’t really made whole. What happens instead is that the rest of us (think the rest of the wildebeest herd) eventually are able to move on as if nothing as happened. However much President Obama (or President Bush or President Clinton) might be affected, he has thousands of other communities to care about, and myriad other people and issues crying for attention.
The reality is that resilience to hazards is at its core a community matter. The risks often tend to be locally specific (that river that runs through town, or the fault zone along the edge of the nearby mountain range; the factory that’s everyone’s livelihood sited in the floodplain, or the all the housing developments built on former mudslides). It’s the local residents who know best the risks and vulnerabilities, who see the fragile state of their regional economy and remember what happened the last time drought destroyed their crops, and on and on.
Similarly, the benefits of building and maintaining resilience are largely local as well.
Leaders and residents of every community in the United States, after watching the news coverage of Sendai in the evenings, might be motivated to spend a few hours the morning following building community disaster resilience through private-public collaboration.
What a coincidence! There’s actually a National Academies Natural Research Council report by that same name. It gives a framework for such collaborations, and some guidelines for how to make such collaborations effective. And – it’s an NRC report, so you know it has a boatload of references to other work that you might also find useful.
So let’s reach out to our Japanese brothers and sisters. We’re all in this together! And let’s not forget those in Pakistan. Or Haiti. Or New Orleans. They’re still suffering too.
And let’s get real about protecting our communities against future threats.