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Some Lessons Learned After Japan's Nuclear Reactor Nightmare Following the Earthquake and Tsunami

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Japan has faced literally earth-shattering horrors. Last week's devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake (fourth largest since 1900) and tsunami were responsible for moving the island closer to the United States and shifted the planet's axis.  Japan is now 13 feet closer to North America.japan earthquake

The resulting tsunami destroyed roads, bridges, and infrastructure; it tossed cars and trucks around like toys and may have claimed 20,000 lives.

These events have damaged several of Japan’s nuclear facilities, triggering a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that will take weeks to resolve.

Any one of these three tragic events (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis) would have annihilated most countries.  Case in point—last year’s earthquake in Haiti completely destroyed that nation. One year later, Haitians are still dealing with piles of rubble and chaos despite the outpouring of billions of dollars from foreign aid and private charities.  The Haitian earthquake was a 7.0 magnitude quake; the Japanese quake was 9.0…. that means the Japanese quake was 100 times more intense. Wow.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week caused tragic suffering and loss of life, but the situation could have been much worse if it weren't for the high quality of Japan's emergency preparedness, response, and respect for law and order.

If any nation could handle such a trio of disasters, it is Japan.

A Nation Prepared

Japanese engineering and technology make most earthquakes look like simple inconveniences, though such innovations were put to the limits this time.

Japan's buildings are built with deep foundations, the most advanced supported by shock absorbers that allow the structure to move with the earth, rather than against it. As a result, many buildings may sway violently, but will stay upright in an intense earthquake.

Japan's famous bullet trains slow to an automatic halt in the event of a large earthquake. In four-plus decades of whisking millions of people across Japan at high speed, it has yet to suffer a fatality. I wish Amtrak could have such a rate of success.

Television channels immediately switch from normal programming to live coverage of the aftermath of a large quake. The names of the affected areas are flashed on the screen, along with details of the quake's intensity in each area. A map of Japan showing coastal areas subject to tsunami warnings is a constant presence in the corner of the screen

Cell phones even alert its citizens when an earthquake is about to strike.

A Resilient, Law-Abiding People

Each Japanese individual is just as prepared as their government.

The Japanese have been prepared for a “big” quake all of their lives. School children know to slip a padded cover on their heads and duck under a desk when the earth shakes. Like a reflex, people at home know to open the front door in case one needs to make a hasty exit out of the building.

Many households keep a basic earthquake survival kit of bottled water, dry rations, a first-aid kit and torches equipped with radios that broadcast regular updates.

While confusion reigned last  Friday evening as thousands of people in Tokyo made their way to ad hoc evacuation centers and designated muster areas, or began a long walk home, the atmosphere was one of concern rather than panic.

And very little looting.  Flash back to any natural disaster in recent memory, and among the scenes of homes in ruin and families weeping are often all-too-familiar images of looting-- Desperate victims smashing windows and stealing food, clothing or electronics -- whether out of greed or necessity. Think about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or last year's earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Japan’s general sense of social responsibility and self-regulation and a deep-rooted sense of honor forbid taking advantage of a national disaster for personal gain.

"In the U.S. we can't even win an NBA or NFL championship without violence breaking out," James E. Bodenheimer wrote in a column Tuesday for North Carolina's Gaston Gazette newspaper. "What is the secret that the Japanese hold? Is it honor -- 'saving face'? Is it respect -- 'honor your elders'?

Here is the secret-- Japan is a collective culture that stresses social harmony and order above the individual.

How is this for a demonstration of order—in the aftermath of the disasters, the Japanese have been waiting in grocery store lines for twelve hours for basic supplies like water and baby food.  Despite the length of the lines, everyone stayed calm and polite.

Heck, when I am at line in a Wal-mart, customers are already getting nasty after five minutes—who can forget about the screaming kids who wine to their parents in order get candy when in line? Miserable.

Can the USA Handle a 9.0?

A massive earthquake on par with the recent catastrophic seismic event in Japan could happen in two places in the United States, scientists say—the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.  

So will the American people be like the Hurricane Katrina victims, waving a “Somebody Help Me” sign while sitting on top of their roofs of their flooded homes, or will we be like the calm and resilient Japanese who patiently wait in line?

I don’t know… according to Sarah Palin, the people of the Northwest and Alaska are rugged individuals. Maybe they have the fortitude to handle such disasters.

And that’s a good thing, because I don’t think our government’s preparation can come even close to matching the Japanese.

Head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano seems to think we can handle such disasters.

Sounds almost like a joke… “I’m here from the government. I’m here to help”.

If the help is anything like the FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think the people in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will want that help.

Contact Erik Uliasz a euliasz@philly2philly.com

Photo from Foxnews.com

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