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