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Earthquake, tsunami drills may have been counter-productive


Few nations are as disaster-prone as Japan, and few are as disaster-prepared. Earthquake drills here are as routine as fire drills. When the earth moves and ceilings crumble and solid ground gives way beneath your feet, every child knows not to dash outside but to duck under a table; every child knows when flight is safe and where the nearest shelter is. These and other survival measures are second nature to the Japanese; they’re instinctive.

And they can be dead wrong, reports Spa! (April 19) from ground zero in Miyagi Prefecture.

Setting aside the question – though it’s the biggest question of all – of whether a country as naturally hazardous as Japan had any business opting as it did for nuclear power generation on such a scale, could any prior training have prepared citizens to cope with a magnitude 9 earthquake and 10-15-meter-high waves hurtling kilometers inland at speeds of 100 kmh?

Daily life makes us complacent. The last tsunami to hit Tohoku hard was the one generated by an earthquake in Chile in 1960. In 1978, a quake off Miyagi was followed by a tsunami that rose all of 30 cm. So maybe it’s not surprising that to local young people, the alarm sounding on March 11 signaled excitement rather than danger. The kids ran with their cell phones to photograph rising seas and rivers. The photos would make great emails to friends. Many of those kids were swept away before they could hit “send.”

You’d think the drills would have covered this, but in fact, says Spa!, few people were aware that there are two different alarms – one for tsunami two meters and less, and a shriller, more terrifying one for those above two meters.

In a sense, the drills may be counter-productive. What would they seem to children if not fun and games? Probably they are packaged that way to enlist their cooperation. Adults who take the drilled rules seriously and focus on following them run other risks. Rules we have been taught to follow can short-circuit instinctual wisdom.

In Ishinomaki, Spa!’s reporter saw in a collapsed home the corpse of a man in his 50s. The man was wearing a helmet. Evidently he’d followed accepted procedure. The helmet suggests scrupulous preparation, and he’d been disciplined enough to stay put. Wouldn’t he have been better off, Spa! wonders, fleeing to high ground? As it happened, in his area there was abundant high ground to flee to.

Japan will have a great deal to think about in the months and years ahead. It has suffered much and, hopefully, learned much. One lesson as far as Spa! is concerned is that unconventional disasters make nonsense of conventional wisdom.

© Japan Today

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Setting aside the question – though it’s the biggest question of all – of whether a country as naturally hazardous as Japan had any business opting as it did for nuclear power generation on such a scale,

Seriously? With so few native fuel resources (and coming out of a terrible war in which imported fuel was a big factor), Japan had little choice but to adopt nuclear power, and they used it safely for 50+ years. They weren't prepared well enough for what is one of the biggest earthquakes the world has ever seen, but it's ridiculous to look back at that and say that they were stupid to adopt nuclear power in the first place.

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"could any prior training have prepared citizens to cope with a magnitude 9 earthquake and 10-15-meter-high waves hurtling kilometers inland at speeds of 100 kmh?"

That should be km/h. h is not a multiplicand, it's a denominator. But anyway, the answer is yes! Such training is possible, but the marginal benefit from doing it considering that it is such a low probability combination of events does not make it worth it.

So it is exactly tied to nuclear safety. Of course we can all be safer, but we would rather spend time and money on TV and potato chips and cross our fingers. It isn't bad. It's the way we are. Every day, we live in denial that our sun is going to blow up some day and make all of this meaningless.

"Daily life makes us complacent"

Yep. Kurt Cobain said -- I think I'm dumb. Or maybe just happy.

The last line of the article could not be more wrong. Drilling, even if it does not prepare people for everything, has the effect of calming them and letting them act rationally. "Do I do this, or stick to the plan?" Then actions are based on CHOICE and DATA rather than panic and clamor.

Tokyo needs to spend less time writing articles and more time drilling.

I am bursting with pride at the actions of teachers and my community in the first hour after the quake. No panic. No confusion. Never. Few tears. No screaming and yelling. My whole family was home in less than half an hour, checking on neighbors, and preparing for a cold dark night in the aftershocks. Then we brainstormed about how we could help others.

No need for SPA to second-guess. I don't think the preparation could have been better. That quake? That tsunami? The death toll could just as well have been double. Generally, young people were saved, which says to me that the older folks knew what to do, they just couldn't do it.

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Hello? Anyone, who had a clue about the 2004 Sumatra Earthquake should left the beaches. No brainer there. They should have thought out of the box. But no! Maybe, they thought, with their superior will power they can control mother nature and master the universe.

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So maybe it’s not surprising that to local young people, the alarm sounding on March 11 signaled excitement rather than danger. The kids ran with their cell phones to photograph rising seas and rivers. The photos would make great emails to friends. Many of those kids were swept away before they could hit “send.”

??? Huh? Really? This goes against any coverage I've seen so far. I find it highly unlikely.

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All this past month I've been wondering how many of the folks who didn't or couldn't make it to higher ground, intentionally made a choice to stay put in their homes because the sheer magnitude of the earthquake told them that this WAS the Big One. And maybe some just thought that Life post such a huge earthquake wouldn't be worth living. I would never question, fault or judge anyone who made this choice. Isn't a bit of fatalism part of the Japanese psyche or spirit? Of course, we'll never know the truth to this. And many would believe, that life and death, in the end, it's all in God's hands anyway.

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The question that is continually asked of former ALTs who are now in the USA is, "Why were people in the parks and why was the man driving his car at the beach when sirens or other warnings were being sounded?" It is one thing to say the people could not get to higher ground, but the news videos in the USA show people just walking along and not paying attention to the unfortunate woman's voice on the community's loud speaker yelling, "Tsunami."

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Most of the drills are advanced well ahead of time, highly orchestrated, immaculately rehearsed, with start lines, officials with white gloves and whistles, local politicians looking on, and everything timed to the second. More realistic drills are not done that way, but sprung on people at any time of the day or night; highly disruptive to the people, institution or organisation, but a much better test.

At the same time, with the rise in personal audio systems, and large in-car stereo systems, how many people could not hear warnings, as their ears were full of the latest pop music? Additionally, with daily life in Japan, there is a stream of constant warnings on platform stations, public crossings, buildings, escalators; people have learned to tune out, so when real danger is announced, it is just shrugged off as yet another warning.

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Last year there was an earthquake and tsunami warning up here. The tsunami last year only flooded part of the town near the seafront, so maybe people became complacent. At that time many people ignored the tsunami warning: these are the people who died last month, along with elderly people who were either too slow or too stubborn to evacuate.

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Warnings and drills are all good.

Remember when he river through my home-town flooded parts of downtown every spring. Till they "thought" they had sorted it. Guess the channel(big tourist attraction) they dug next to the river didn't prevent it all as another MAJOR flooding hit them.

Why did we get the floods because we wanted to build in areas that took the excess.

Yes, people become complacent like the guy in the USA that died from the Tsunami.

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In safety meetings we are told not to go under a desk, not to go under a door frame...just get out of the building if possible. Or lie down next to a heavy mass, like a stack of copy paper.

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One problem is that the people who use the loudspeakers don't speak candidly. They speak in a few set patterns. There is a time when it is actually best to induce panic, and none of the patterns do that. If it was me at the loud speaker and I thought I had cause, mostly only the deaf would ignore me.

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Who knows. Unless we actually ask people who were in some of the devastated towns it's all just speculation. Could well be true, but we have to find out. One thing to remember/be aware of is that the first massive tsunami hit Ofunato at 3:06 that afternoon, only 20 minutes after the massive quake. Where were you at that time? What were you doing? I was still trying to locate family on the phone and by car. If I'd been living there and done the same I would have been a goner. I might have been better prepared because of the possibility of a tsunami, but those 20 minutes felt like 2 at the time.

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The logic here leaves something to be desired. Should there be drills? Of course. Can they be improved? Yes. But all the training in the world can't force every civilian to follow procedures. Most will, hopefully, but never all. I'm sure many were doomed no matter how well they were prepared.

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I think the "under the table" rule is meant for the majority of the Japanese light wood houses. Basically those houses built after 1976 or reformed to withstand earthquakes are quite flexible and prove much more resistant than brick/concrete frame combination for a typical European house.

For bigger earthquake when the structure collapses in a matter of seconds your best chance can be the table. Trying to escape will catch you in the wreckage!

However I don't think this protection is sufficient in school buildings, panel or even concrete structures. The ruble might be just too heavy for table to protect you. You better first stand in a known frame or cross slab where the chances it will not collapse are higher. Everything else including leaving the building is pure luck.

As for the evacuation places - most are set up at school yards and local gardens/parks. This is to be away from falling objects from buildings but does not consider tsunamis.

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I know a woman whose brother lives in Kamaishi in Iwate. She said the first thing he told her was that the people who knew what to do and reacted correctly were alive, those who didn't were all dead. Why different people reacted differently is something the experts will likely be going over for a long time, especially after Indonesia and with the history of the area. My amateur guess is that 21st century scientific and historical knowledge is up against 1000's of years of human behavior regarding earthquakes and tsunamis, and that denial and fatalism run very deep.

One other thing, the traditional get-under-a table earthquake advice is 100% wrong for the kind of quake we had on March 11th. With a P-wave alarm system, and the slow build-up time of a subduction quake, most people could casually walk out of the building they are in and find a safe, open area to sit down and watch the climax from. Then if they are near the sea, move it. That seems to me to be knowledge that everyone should have, but if you talk about it you will be accused of "scare-mongering". The way to protect yourself from scary stuff is to not think about it apparently.

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ANY kind of drill loses its effectiveness as it gets repeated with no actual threat. At the schools I work at (in the U.S., not in Japan) the kids treat fire drills as a big lark. They're chattering all the way out to their assembly location even though we warn them that they'd never hear additional instructions with all that noise. We have to have a fire drill at least once a month (once a week during the first month of the school year) so after a couple of months of that the kids start ignoring their procedures.

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Have to agree with Fadamor.

The Drills I been through here at work were not taken serious and most people looked bored.

"Yeah, I know all about practicing procedures for emergencies," said Lu-Tze. "And there's always something missing. You always leave out the damn emergency." From Terry Pratchett's - Thief of Time.

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@okapake - that's the triangle of life philosophy! Look for the small spaces next to solid objects that will not compress and will protect you, e.g. get out of your car and curl up by the engine block, in the office by the pile of papers, in your home by the appliances or bed frame. It's not taught in schools here, but unofficially it is known.

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even now, after all that has happened, at my elementary school which is on the eastern coast in shizuoka, they have revised their evac plan in the event of a tsunami to climb to the roof of the gym. albeit a change from going to the top floor of the school, it is still not sufficient to protect the children from a tsunami the size of the one in tohoku. large buildings on the coast stories high were either washed away or completely overrun by the water. also, with a mountain to the rear of the school, there is no telling how high a tsunami could reach. if i was a parent at this school i would be seriously worried and very angry that the school board has not made an adequate evac plan for my child. as i said, there is a mountain behind the school however no talk has ever been made about getting the kids to walk up the mountain in the event of a tsunami

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"Don't cry wolf" has never been more true. Complacency is the name of the game, and now the wolf has arrived. Scurrying off to a school is not necessarily the correct response, but it is the drill. It is still a very sad situation.

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Although the drills meay seem mundane, I think it is a bit of the stupidity that took the lives of some. After an earthquake that size, it would only make sense to be prepared for a rather substantial tsunami...but some were probably just too curious and intrigued and wanted to get a closer look/picture of the tsunami. Others may have not been able to flee because of health reasons. I think the drills are still needed but people need to take warnings more seriously and I am sure that they will do so after this tragedy.

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Big difference between earthquake and tsunami. This article seems to be lumping them both into the same category. You train for earthquakes, then you're prepared for earthquakes. You train for tsunamis, then you're prepared for tsunamis... seems simple enough to me.

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It's not taught in schools here, but unofficially it is known

And debunked by many, many experts.

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High quality reporting that 'SPA!' is well known for of course... sarcasm

Not to take away from the fact that many people may indeed not have tried to run, or thought they were far enough inland not to be concerned. Most people didn't have the time to make the decision either way.

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Looking at the pictures of Ishinomaki on Google Earth, I don't see how an obaasan or ojiisan living near the harbor and with no motorized transportation could have gotten clear of the debris field before the tsunami hit - even if they had left the house as soon as the tsunami warning sounded. Even in my younger days, it would have been a stretch to say I could have made it clear in the 20 or so minutes between the first alarm and the tsunami arriving. There are 7 or 8 blocks-worth of NOTHING where houses used to be.

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