The Wave, reminiscent of Hokusai’s masterful woodblock print, blew past Japan’s shoreline defenses of harbor breakwaters and gigantic four-legged blocks called tetrapods, lifting ships to ram through seawalls and crash onto downtown parking lots. Seaside areas were soon emptied of cars and houses dragged up rivers and back out to sea. Wave heights of up to10 meters (33 feet) are staggering, but before deeming these as unimaginable, consider the historical Sanriku tsunami that towered to 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) and killed 27,000 people in 1896.
Nature’s terrifying power, however we may dread it, is only as great as the human-caused vulnerability of our civilization. Soon after Christmas 2004, I volunteered for the rescue operation on the day after the Indian Ocean tsunami and simultaneously did an on-site field study on the causes of fatalities in southern Thailand. The report, issued by Thammasat and Hong Kong Universities, concluded that high water wasn’t the sole cause of the massive death toll. No, it’s buildings that kill – to be specific, badly designed structures without escape routes onto roofs or, in our greed for real estate, situated inside drained lagoons and riverbeds, or on loose landfill. In the Tohoku disaster, an ultramodern Sendai Airport sat helplessly flooded on all sides while nearby a monstrous black torrent swept entire houses upstream.
Other threats are built into the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure and power systems. The balls of orange flames churning out of huge gas storage tanks in Ichihara, Chiba, should never have happened if technical precautions had been properly carried out. Whenever things go wrong, underlying risks had led to a liability and, in a responsible society, accountability.
Most people assume that the meticulous Japanese are among the world’s most responsible citizens. As an investigative journalist who has covered the Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake and the Tokyo subway gassing, I beg to differ. Japan is just better than elsewhere in organizing official cover-ups.
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