The Tohoku (Fukushima) earthquake struck on Friday March 11, 2011 off the coast of Japan. It was extraordinarily powerful at 9.1 on the Richter Scale and it shined a spotlight on both Japan’s preparedness success and its failure. Tokyo survived the quake in textbook fashion while the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors undermined the confidence in the Japanese government and proved that black swans exist; highly “improbable” events do occur and they can have hugely consequential effects.
Chei A. was driving her three children, ages seven, four and two through downtown Tokyo when the quake began. Having lived through the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1994 which killed upwards of 6,000 people and caused over $200 billion of damage, she knew what was happening. And she was scared. Chei was stuck in her car under an overpass with the sunroof open and surrounded by skyscrapers. With flashbacks of bridges and roadways collapsing from the Kobe earthquake, she watched as Tokyo’s skyscrapers and overpasses swayed and rotated overhead. Her oldest was crying out, “mommy, we’re going to die.” With three kids she knew she couldn’t leave the car, so she closed the sunroof and they waited it out.
Traffic had come to a stop, power was out, and people began exiting the buildings - calmly. After a few minutes the initial quake ended and traffic began to move slowly. Within half an hour she and her children were back home, power had returned, and they were watching the news. News of the tsunami which took between ten minutes and half an hour to hit the coast of Japan had just begun to be reported on.
Japan has a long history of natural disasters including floods, typhoons, mudslides and earthquakes which has led the country to be the most prepared for these disasters in the world. Most Japanese have a family member who has been seriously impacted by a natural disaster; preparedness is ingrained in the culture. Schools have earthquake drills and teach what to do. Emergency kits and go bags are normal - in fact they’re sold door to door. Evacuation routes are given to buyers of new houses. The government has a history of incorporating new technologies and requirements in building codes, and confidence in the country’s ability to respond, prior to Fukushima, was high.
One minute before the earthquake was felt in Tokyo, the Japanese Earthquake Early Warning Systems triggered an alert which set in motion rapid response of such things as trains coming to a stop, factory assembly lines stopping and elevators stopping. The city was advised and was ready. This in conjunction with stringent seismic building codes, many of which were upgraded after Kobe, is widely believed to have saved many lives and avoid major damage.
At Chei’s house, although aftershocks kept rolling in and they were consumed with fear, there was little damage. Books were on the floor, but glass wasn’t - self locking cabinets are one example of earthquake proofing a house. Power was on, the internet was available, phone lines were still overloaded.
As the hours rolled by and the impact of the tsunami became more understood, fear and horror swept the country. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors suffered a Level 7 meltdown, and the tsunami in general was responsible for over 16,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced, and ultimately the costliest natural disaster in history. The World Bank put the estimated cost at $235 billion.
For Chei, Tokyo became eerie. The food supply from the north was shut off for fear of radiation, shelves were empty from panic buying, long lines grew to get fuel, and the US embassy was dispensing iodine tablets to ex-patriots living in Japan (Chei’s husband, Brooks, is American). Brooks was due to return on the Friday of the earthquake, his airplane scheduled to land shortly after the quake hit. His flight was diverted to Alaska. He was able to contact Chei by Skype after landing in Alaska - a great relief since he knew little about what was actually happening. He ultimately was able to reunite with his family in Tokyo the following Monday.
In Japan, there’s an expectation of disaster. Real estate prices are higher in neighborhoods built on bedrock versus those built in valleys where the earth is less stable. There is a national Alert system and a preparedness way of life. Chei, Brooks and their children were prepared to shelter in place until they could leave Tokyo. Neighbors helped neighbors and others, inviting total strangers into their homes for food and water.
What is striking is how a country known for their extraordinary preparedness and response, can succumb to a natural disaster to the degree they did with the Fukushima quake. It begs the question of what size disaster should be prepared for? The Fukushima quake was the fourth largest in recorded history, so although not unprecedented, a 9.1 magnitude was extremely unlikely. If we prepared to withstand events that are greater than any we have already experienced, our landscape would probably look a lot different right now, and would certainly be a lot safer.
Fukushima earthquake facts:
Here are some of the amazing facts about the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami as reported in livescience.
- The earthquake shifted earth on its axis of rotation by redistributing mass, like putting a dent in a spinning top. The temblor also shortened the length of a day by about a microsecond.
- More than 5,000 aftershocks hit Japan in the year after the earthquake, the largest a magnitude 7.9.
- About 250 miles (400 km) of Japan's northern Honshu coastline dropped by 2 feet (0.6 meters), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
- The jolt moved Japan's main island of Honshu eastward by 8 feet (2.4 meters).
- The Pacific Plate slid westward near the epicenter by 79 feet (24 m).
- In Antarctica, the seismic waves from the earthquake sped up the Whillans Ice Stream, jolting it by about 1.5 feet (0.5 meters).
- The tsunami broke icebergs off the Sulzberger Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
- As the tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean, a 5-foot high (1.5 m) wave killed more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
- In Norway, water in fjords pointing toward Japan sloshed back and forth as seismic waves from the earthquake raced through.
- The earthquake produced a low-frequency rumble called infrasound, which traveled into space and was detected by the Goce satellite.
- Buildings destroyed by the tsunami released thousands of tons of ozone-destroying chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air.