One year after

Lessons from Japan’s earthquake

Japan’s citizens are still reeling from what UBC Geography Prof. David Edgington calls “the triple disaster” of March 11, 2011 – the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

UBC Reports asked the Japan expert about clean-up efforts and the likelihood of a similar event in B.C., topics Edgington and colleagues will explore at a public anniversary event.

Clearing the debris

I went to some of the hard-hit coastal areas this past December, and I was astounded how clean many of the beachfront waterside suburbs are. We saw terrible photos in the days after the tsunami, with debris everywhere. About six months on, the local governments and local construction crews have done a wonderful job in clearing those areas.

In fact, the debris is now sitting in very compact mountains. Timber, car parts and plastics are all sorted, waiting for somewhere to go. Only the large cities —Tokyo, Osaka and maybe Nagoya, have the capacity to absorb that. The puzzle is whether these items can be recycled. The citizens of Tokyo are saying, ‘Well hang on, we’ve heard about radiation.’ The government has to do a PR job about massaging people’s concerns.

Fukushima radiation concerns

The radiation problem is one of low-level radiation over a large area. This is a new challenge for the Japanese government. My belief is there were many systems in place that helped the government respond to the earthquake and tsunami disaster, but the Fukushima problem is a new one.

The government is engaged in many testing systems for the food supply and for materials, including the debris in the tsunami zone. We’ll just have to see how successful those systems are in the months to come.

Similarities to the 1995 Kobe earthquake

Kobe happened 17 years ago, now. There have been stronger building codes, better warning systems taking into account information and media systems—that’s quite new in Japan. I believe all these helped lessen the suffering and the number of deaths in the March tsunami and earthquake.

Preparing for disaster

If any country can be prepared for an event of this magnitude, it’s Japan. There are four pillar applications in the Japanese system for emergency preparedness, some of which have come out of the learning and mistakes of Kobe. One is the very high-tech early warning systems; second are the strongest building codes in the world; third would be the disaster drills that every community takes part in; and fourth, there is infrastructure spending—maybe five per cent of the country’s budget every year goes to flood disaster prevention and putting storm water defenses along the coast.

Those systems are in place because Japan has a history of disasters, not only earthquakes and tsunamis, but landslides from too much rain, flooding, and volcanic explosions from time to time.

 Disaster prevention in British Columbia

Many people say that in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, we’re quite vulnerable to the Cascadia fault line, which lies just off the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s not clear how exactly that would affect our area in terms of damage and in terms of a likely tsunami to the west coast of Vancouver. We have a very strong emergency preparedness program in British Columbia.

One learning point from Japan was that 100,000 personnel from their army and other services came to the disaster area in the first 48 hours. I’d like to think that British Columbia could gain that amount of support from the Canadian armed forces. But the programs here tend to suggest that people might be on their own for the first 72 hours. That means we have to prepare ourselves in terms of where we live, for house insurance, for looking out for our neighbours and our friends, and preparing packs of food, sanitary items and battery operated radios to get us though the first 72 hours, until help can arrive from outside.

Watch Edginton’s full interview and RSVP for a March 14–16 workshop on the disaster and local lessons at www.iar.ubc.ca.

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