The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami…one year on

We all know what day this is.

One year ago – on March 11, 2011 – Japan and the world were hit by one of the five strongest earthquakes in recorded history. Over the past few days, media coverage of this tragic anniversary has been intense.

The numbers are stupefying.

Let’s start with the earthquake and the tsunami itself. The magnitude of the quake was 9.0. The height of the tsunami? As much as 130 feet. The earthquake moved the main land mass of Japan 8 feet eastward, and shifted the axis of the entire Earth itself by some 4-10 inches. [For comparison? The Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 – the third greatest earthquake over the past 100 years – was slightly greater – 9.3 on the same scale, but generated tsunami waves of “only” 100 feet.]

The human tragedy? Some 20,000 people died. 300,000 were displaced from their homes – many following the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima nuclear reactors as a result of the tsunami, which led to a reactor meltdown and radioactive release over the area. [The numbers for the Indonesian earthquake? 200,000-300,000 deaths, spanning the Indian Ocean; more than one million people displaced.]

Stupefying numbers? Literally so. The great social scientist and researcher Paul Slovic has reminded us of this. Writing on genocide, he said, “Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem.”  Elsewhere Slovic has referred to statistics such as these as “human beings with the tears dried off.”

You can click on something else now if you wish. The one-year anniversary of the tragedy? Duly noted. You’ve got a lot more happening today. You have your own busy life to live.

But maybe you want to do a little more. Maybe you want to get past the numbers. Perhaps you want to use this memory of those who died to rededicate yourself to your work on this Real World, and intensify your efforts to make us all safer in the face of hazards.

Can you spare ten minutes for that? Then here’s an exercise you might try.

First, take two minutes to watch Japanese video from a year ago of the event.  Chances are good you can remember seeing something like this a year ago.

Then, take six minutes to watch an interview from this past Friday night’s PBS Newshour, with Carl Pillitteri, an American who was at the Fukushima reactor when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Listen to his voice. Look at his face. Hear his retelling of what it’s been like for him this past year. He talks about his first month back home. His challenges with alcohol. His inability to smile…for an entire year. He has done every viewer a favor by his openness and willingness to share.

Painful to watch.

But you’ve still got a few minutes left. So use them this way. Remind yourself. This was the impact of the earthquake and tsunami on a single person over the past year. An American, who was uninjured physically, was able to fly home shortly after the event, to a community and a family and friends who were whole.

How many surviving Japanese were affected at least this much? Those 300,000 who lost homes or were injured, and/or were displaced? Probably a substantially larger number. But let’s start with those 300,000.

Suppose each of them were interviewed for 6 minutes. If you and I set out to watch those stories, it would take us 30,000 hours. Let’s say we slept for 8 hours a day. [We wouldn’t. We’d toss and turn. Remember, we might reasonably expect these stories to be far sadder than Mr. Pillitteri’s.] It would take us 2000 days to watch these stories. Suppose we did this five days a week, fifty weeks a year.

It would take us eight years.

Remember. Each of those six-minute stories is an inadequate condensation of a year of  a life without smiling, of coping with grievous loss, of wanting life itself back.

Remember. For most of these people, this coming year isn’t going to be much better.

Remember. This is just one disaster, of many that have occurred in the last eight years, going back to that Indonesian tsunami. And we could bring this closer to home. Haiti. Katrina. Last year’s tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Joplin and elsewhere. On and on.

Remember. More such disasters lie ahead, over the next eight years.

Remember. Your work on Earth observations and science and services, your efforts to understand risk communication, your responsibilities in emergency management and hazard mitigation, and the policy governing all this, or your journalism  – your work matters. Let all the workplace dysfunction recede in your thinking. Forget the red tape and the declining budgets and the personal squabbling and the organizational infighting.

Ask yourself. What can you do today to make this a safer Real World? What would being proactive look like? To make this the first thing, and actually put it first? How can you and I look at each other, and see friends, not enemies or competitors, and think Win-Win, as we prepare for what’s coming?

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