And About Those Nuclear Reactor Issues…

Here are some facts regarding Fukushima, as soberly reported by Popular Mechanics. In a nutshell: Yes, this is a serious situation. No, we don’t know exactly how serious.

I expect that nuclear engineers the world over will be pouring over the incident reports from Japan so they can figure out what went wrong (besides the obvious, of course) and devise new and improved safeguards. Should we allow Fukushima to deter us from incorporating nuclear power into our plans for U.S. energy independence? Even Obama is smart enough to say no — at least for the moment.

Resilient Japan

Resilient Japan
by Jesse Walker @ Reason Magazine

When Hollywood shows you an earthquake, an eruption, or a towering inferno, you see mass panic, stampeding crowds, maybe a looting spree. When sociologists study real-life disasters, they see calm, resourceful people evacuating buildings, rescuing strangers, and cooperating nonviolently. How cooperative can people be? “At a convenience store in one battered coastal prefecture,” The Washington Post reported shortly after the Sendai quake, “a store manager used a private electric generator. When it stopped working and the cash register no longer opened, customers waiting in line returned their items to the shelves.”

These patterns shift somewhat from culture to culture, and if a disaster coincides with certain conditions—severe class distinctions, a serious pre-existing crime problem, a police department that’s especially corrupt—a post-disaster riot may break out. But that’s the exception, not the rule. On Monday, Ed West of the London Telegraph asked with awe, “Why is there no looting in Japan?” A better query would be, “When people do loot, what prompted the plunder?”

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see survivors keeping their heads, sharing food and other resources, and doing all they can to contain the damage. That’s what usually happens after an earthquake. It’s just that most Americans haven’t read about, say, the Kobe quake of 1995, when the disaster researchers Kathleen Tierney and James D. Goltz reported that “Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were very widespread throughout the emergency period; community residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people traveled from other parts of the country to offer aid.”

Last year, I read a trilogy of young adult novels which detailed the aftermath of a catastrophic astronomical event (those books are reviewed here if you’re interested), and one of the things that irked me the most about the series was the author’s seriously warped portrayal of human nature, which closely resembled the Hollywood movies Walker mentions above. It’s good to see that my instincts have actually been confirmed by sociological research.

"Tsunami" Is a Japanese Word

Over the past few days, bloggers and journalists have offered several explanations to account for the fact that Japan’s response to its earthquake-tsunami one-two punch has been so — well — orderly. Some speculate that Japan’s ethnic homogeneity may be to blame. Others have theorized that Japan’s “culture of shame” quells looting and other selfish behavior. Both of those may be true, but I’d like to propose a third hypothesis: the Japanese were simply better prepared.

Because Japan sits on the legendary Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the Japanese have been studying earthquakes and tsunamis for centuries. We know, for example, that there was a major earthquake and tsunami in Cascadia before the European settlement in part because the Japanese recorded the event. Every Japanese child is warned, I’m sure, that the seemingly tranquil ocean could breech its limits at any time and completely inundate a coastal city. Earthquake drills are par for the course in Japanese schools; the entire Japanese nation, in fact, has been engaged whole-heartedly in the art and science of disaster-preparedness for as long as I can remember (and certainly longer). Given this, it really doesn’t surprise me that the Japanese seem preternaturally calm as all hell breaks loose around them. The knowledge of their impending doom has been inextricably woven into their national consciousness from time immemorial.

In comparison, we Americans are ridiculously complacent. Despite our earthquake-prone west coast, our hurricane-prone Gulf coast, our tornado-prone midsection, and — oh, yes — that supervolcano that sits simmering in Wyoming, many of us are strangely unconcerned when it comes to prepping for a home-grown disaster. Can we learn from Japan? You bet we can!

Keep Praying for the Japanese (Especially the Missing)

My LJ acquaintance has not yet been found, but folks who happen to be in Japan at the moment have reported that many in her area are stuck in evac shelters with no access to phone or internet. I dearly hope that’s where she is. I don’t know her especially well, but it’s still nerve-wracking waiting for word.

The amazing video footage keeps coming, by the way:

Skyscapers swaying in Tokyo. As I said, the Japanese are genius engineers.

The tsunami coming ashore in Japan and washing away everything in sight. Unfortunately, genius engineering cannot stop a wall of debris and water.

The tsunami’s arrival across the Pacific in Crescent City, CA. It doesn’t look too impressive at the start of the video, but by the end (as you can see), the entire beach is engulfed. Yikes!

Meanwhile, on every American blog I’ve visited in the past day or so, the discussion in the comments has inevitably shifted to talk of the doom, disaster and despair that will result if Yellowstone blows, New Madrid has another 1812-style event, or the Cascadia Subduction Zone finally lets loose, which I think is kind of hilarious. I mean, I certainly won’t think it hilarious if one of those actually does happen, but the gallows humor emanating from the Pacific Northwest in particular makes me chuckle in spite of myself.

First New Zealand, Now Japan

Huge Quake and Tsunami Hit Japan
By MARTIN FACKLER and KEVIN DREW @ the New York Times

TOKYO — An 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on Friday, the strongest ever recorded in the country and one of the largest anywhere in the last century. The quake churned up a devastating tsunami that swept over cities and farmland in the northern part of the country and set off warnings as far away as the West Coast of the United States and South America.

There’s a lot of raw footage of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on You Tube, and it’s absolutely riveting. (Note: As you might expect, the language is not always safe for work.) You know what I find particularly amazing? The fact that so many of those homes/stores/office buildings remained structurally sound during the initial quake. The Japanese sure know how to build ’em.

ETA: Holy crap, take a look at this page. Basically, Japan has been getting aftershock upon aftershock ever since The Big One. We should definitely keep the Japanese in our prayers.

ETA 2: While I knew that a certain LJ acquaintance was an ESL teacher in Japan, I was not aware until just now that she lives on the coast near the epicenter. Now I’m really worried. No one on LJ has heard from her; indeed, I understand her family has reported her missing. Gulp!