Japan’s Earthquake: What Lessons?

There are some news stories about which I feel that we should have something to say, but I have no idea what. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami are in that category. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are suffering from the devastation.
No one knows, yet, what the death toll will ultimately be. Currently the number is under 2,000. That undoubtedly will rise, and yet, if there is one lesson that already can be learned, it is that the devastation was limited to an extraordinary degree by top-notch engineering.
The earthquake was the fifth-most powerful in recorded history, and its epicenter was only 250 miles from Tokyo, one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities. Any yet, as an InstaPundit reader points out, not a single building collapsed and there are no reports of any deaths in the city. That is almost unbelievable.
To understand how extraordinary it is, recall the death totals in prior, much smaller earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey lists earthquakes in which 50,000 or more have died. In 2004, an earthquake comparable to the one that struck Japan killed over 200,000 in Sumatra. Last year’s quake in Haiti killed 210,000, and–if I understand the Richter scale correctly–it had only around one percent the destructive power of this week’s earthquake in Japan. In 2005, 86,000 were killed in Pakistan. In 2003, more than 30,000 were killed in Iran by an earthquake that was tiny compared to Japan’s. This was mostly due to lousy construction, as countless buildings collapsed needlessly, killing those inside.
As I write this, there is great concern over the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. But one thing is clear: this is no time to go Luddite. Let’s give credit where it is due, to the exceptional skill of Japan’s engineers and builders, and to that country’s effective disaster preparedness.
UPDATE: A reader emails from Japan:

I read your post as I am still jetlagged. I arrived at Narita 15 minutes before the quake hit on a vacation to visit my son who attends ICU in Tokyo. Dispite the obvious devastation to the north, it is virtually impossible to tell that there was an earthquake of any significance in Tokyo. Almost no visible damage. Our loved ones back in the states are understandably concerned, but aside from some public transportation and cell phone communication challenges, things are quite normal in the city. The following is the text of an email I recently sent home.

We’ve arrived safely at the apartment we will be staying at in Nakano and are now with P___. Everything is fine. We’re still having frequent aftershocks but they’re largely very small, but kind of unnerving. If you got dropped down where we’re staying and didn’t know they just had a huge earthquake you would have no idea that such a thing had happened. We’re doing well. We really appreciate everyone’s prayers for us. We expect to have a good visit and we will continue be careful and keep you posted.

The Japanese engineering expertise in design to survive an earthquake is nothing short of miraculous.


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