Ironically, I started to write this post a day before the catastrophic earthquake and Tsunami in northern Japan, but it seems the gripping headlines from this terrible tragedy continue to rewrite this post for me. My original intent was to compare community emergency preparedness programs in New York and California called Ready New York and The Greatest Shakeout respectively. But omission of what the Japanese have achieved in the area of preparedness would be ludicrous. In light of the magnitude of this natural event and their effectiveness at containing life loss a more effective aim would be to discuss how preparedness elsewhere in the world compares to Japanese resilience to such incredibly destructive events in the hopes of applying clear takeaways to our own resilient communities.
As I write this post major natural disasters have been taking place around the globe. Japan just witnessed a major earthquake measured at 8.8 on the Richter scale, causing a tsunami with over 23-feet waves. Christchurch, New Zealand also experienced a horrific earthquake last month. North America has been under snow storm and most recently flooding disaster. The Midwest region of the US is also expecting its own bout with extreme weather with both tornados and flooding likely to cause major damage. I mentioned these examples to put things into context. Preparedness can’t exist in a void, there has to be significant cooperation from every member of the community. It is the most effective way to minimize life lost. Authorities in many countries realize this, which is why they have invested resources in systems, processes, and training to protect their communities’ most precious resources in the face on changing patterns fueling the spate of recent natural disasters.
Arguably large scale natural disasters are the context of many discussions lately. But discussions would be out of context without making reference to preparedness and awareness campaigns where we live and work. In that regard “The Great California Shakeout” is a community preparedness resource dedicated to promoting awareness about one of the State’s most prevalent natural hazards, earthquakes, more specifically a potential devastating earthquake. Started in 2008 as the largest earthquake drill in the US, it owes its beginnings to a group of concerned scientist who took it as their responsibility not only to study root causes for potential deadly quake activities, but also to educate the communities on how to protect themselves from their effects. Today the preparedness drills span all 58 counties with more than 6.9 million participating Californians. At the center of the program is the simple to remember “Drop, Cover and Hold-on” which is essential to saving lives in a traumatic event.
The site encourages everyone from individuals, to public/private organizations and authorities at all levels to participate in preparedness exercises; besides providing advice and training materials. The resources they provide have been approved by a team of multidisciplinary experts. The drill manuals cover a variety of learning styles and information intake based on age groups. Multimedia tools allow easy sharing and access which is important for widespread adoption of such information. Flyers and other mass communication tools also help put the word out. The site also links to news and events to aid in the awareness efforts and provides a forum for participants to share their inputs. It also has a presence through social media networks to keep people engaged and help push up-to-the-minute information. Regarding the latter, I stated in a recent post that “social media” has become an indispensable tool in rapid emergency communication and awareness”. That is as much as I can tell you about The Great California Shakeout. If you want to learn more follow the link to the official site: http://www.shakeout.org/
New York’s community preparedness program by contrast takes a broader, all-hazards approach. Ready New York is a program managed through the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Through it they offer informational guides to help New Yorkers prepare for all types of emergencies. New Yorkers are encouraged to take three critical steps: make a plan, get a kit and be informed. Since 2003 when its public readiness campaigns began, they have been aimed at getting New Yorkers to a state of readiness. The program’s common sense approach to potential hazards has also aided its broad adoption by New York’s diverse community.
Japan today is reeling from two catastrophic natural disasters a major earthquake and tsunami leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. A third disaster, nuclear power plants, damaged by earthquakes destructive force looks likely to be averted for now, according to experts in the field. The death toll is likely to be high, but in contrast to recent earthquake disasters in Haiti, China or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake which unleashed a series of devastating tsunamis, the number of victims will likely pale in comparison. It speaks bounds of Japanese resilience. It’s important to understand how this became so, if we intend to improve upon their approach in our own preparedness efforts. After the 1923 massive earthquake that struck the Kanto Plain nearly destroying Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan carefully rebuilt these cities ensuring resilience against another catastrophic event. Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, owing to its location on the “Ring of Fire, an arc of seismic activity that encircles the Pacific Basin” for that reason their built environment (from highways, transportation tunnels and airport facilities, to residential/office building) were constructed with advanced earthquake science in common. Japan has invested significant resources for earthquake safety and disaster management research. In 2000, the country’s building codes were revised again, this time with specific requirements and mandatory checks. At the local level billions of dollars are allocated for “improving the safety of hospitals, schools and social welfare facilities.”
They also take preparedness serious, Japan “marks Disaster Prevention Day on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Tokyo quake with a series of awareness activities. At many Japanese schools, first-day-of-class celebrations include an evacuation drill. Even the Prime Minster participates: at this year’s closing ceremony, Naoto Kan spoke about the importance of “mutual aid” in times of crisis. Japan boasts the world’s most sophisticated earthquake early-warning systems. Emergency drills organized by public and private organizations work, among other things, to transport “stranded” commuters from their offices to their homes. Japan’s tsunami warning service, set up in 1952, consists of 300 sensors around the archipelago, including 80 aquatic sensors that monitor seismic activity 24/7. Small wonder how they have survived such catastrophic events with minimal casualties. The key here is a precise focus on preparedness at every level.
Why is this important to community preparedness around the world? My two illustrated States in the USA, California and New York have similar hazard elements as Japan with unstable fault lines, which may potentially trigger seismic activity in the future according to leading scientists. Both States also have major cities near their significant coast lines which make them vulnerable to tsunamis among other natural hazards. For the sake of our discussion, this is representative of many other developed regions around the world. In terms of critical infrastructure both California and New York have nuclear power plants among their energy assets, which is common among modern industrialized regions around the glove. As far as I’m aware, the Department of Energy regulates construction of power plants and oil refineries to withstand large scale seismic activity, as well as, advanced preparedness (including early warning and evacuation of surrounding communities) procedures in case of emergencies. However the recent oil disaster off the Gulf of Mexico raises concern regarding how strict these procedures have in fact been, when you peeled the bureaucratic layers at such facilities. Both states also strictly regulate building codes to ensure that high-rise building and industrial facilities are built to endure earthquakes. In terms of readiness, California and New York have far reaching community preparedness programs as previously explained. California for its part having identified, through its risk management measures, the high probability of getting hit with another major earthquake, emphasizes such readiness more so than other States. Be that as it may, there is always room for improvement.
Japan’s approach to preparedness offers proven lessons for all communities around the world. In addition, the aftermath of the recent tragedy has revealed a number of takeaways that can further advanced earthquake safety research. Critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants, refineries, weapons stockpile (including research facilities handling deadly toxins) require renewed attention anywhere there is high probability of an earthquake. Every citizen needs to take responsibility for their preparedness: heeding early warning signals; stocking emergency supplies like food, water and medicine (I’d also consider stocking iodine, a radiation antidote if I lived close enough to a nuclear power plant facility), as well as having access to emergency communication, with social media being a proven tool for such events.
Community preparedness is an intelligent way to minimize the risk to life and property loss during natural disasters. I have been involved in these community resilience efforts through my participation in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Comparing these two emergency preparedness programs from New York and California in light of recent experience around the world, should serve as motivation to get you acquainted with similar efforts in your community, and hopefully when disaster strikes you would know what to do. I hope that the magnitude of these tragic events would serve as incentive for everyone to keep preparedness top of mind. These life lessons carry incredible value beyond weathering a disaster, since they are about awareness and being ready for whatever the unpredictable force of nature throws at us.