Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (FILAM STAR, March 18-24, 2011)

The ramifications for California from the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that devastated large parts of northeastern Honshu Island in Japan on March 11, 2011 were immediately obvious from the moment the natural disaster first occurred. Like Japan, the state of California is a beehive of earthquake activity, activity that the best of earthquake researchers cannot as of yet, come close to predicting.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have absolutely no reason to assume that we are any less safe from a major earthquake. How can we think so when we have so many earthquake faults crisscrossing the region and have a history of earthquakes striking Bay Area cities? It sounds alarmist, but I think many of us know that scientists are predicting that a powerful tremor will hit somewhere in the Golden State in the next thirty years. Are we doing enough to prepare for it?

The Japanese people also live in an earthquake-prone region so they are usually prepared. And yet, all their preparedness came to naught once it met the wrath of Mother Nature. Imagine had they not been prepared. What is a calamity could have turned into a tragedy of unheard of dimensions.

Over the past twenty years, beginning with the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Californians’ preparedness has left much to be desired. According to the 2010 California Earthquake Preparedness Survey, under 35% of those surveyed knew how to ensure that their homes were structurally safe in the event of an earthquake. Less than 20% conducted inspections of their home’s ability to withstand quakes. The same percentage bought earthquake insurance and had their residences structurally buttressed. And as far as family disaster planning went, just 40% actually conceived such plans.

However, there are rays of sunshine peeking through the clouds in the survey. Over 65% of Californians said that they received first aid training. A strong majority of 80% acknowledged that they had in their possession first aid kits, batteries, and flashlights for a potential natural disaster. Overall though, the earthquake preparedness picture according to the survey is far from optimal. Now is the time to turn that all around before the big one finally comes our way.

On a separate note concerning the Japan quake and tsunami: I have been appalled to hear from some Filipinos here that because Japan is a rich country, that the Japanese can handle the unimaginable magnitude of the disaster that has befallen them. I even heard from one Filipino that the Japanese were such a stoic and disciplined people that something as terrible as the earthquake/tsunami could not shake them emotionally. Probably the worst thing I heard from another Filipino was that the earthquake/tsunami was retribution for the Bataan Death March in World War Two.

It is difficult to account for these disturbing reminders of how ignorant people can be. Some people cannot stop doing it, especially with the Japanese who have long been victims of prejudice and stereotyping. Yes, it is true that the Japanese are well-known for their sangfroid, their extreme politeness, and their diligence. But to reduce them to those few categories is to underscore them but at the same time to be impervious to the aspects that make them human in every sense of the word.

Japanese are no less emotional than any other peoples. But their ability to avoid appearing expressive can have a deleterious effect on their image as a people. Their outward self-control can make them appear to be unfeeling, mechanical, even inhuman.

Given the extent of Japan’s financial resources it is hard to believe that it needs foreign assistance for relief and rescue efforts. It just tells you how bad the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami were when one of the richest nations in the world cries out to the international community for help. And now, to top it off, spreading radiation from damaged nuclear power plants is endangering the lives of an already-traumatized population.

Acting in the spirit of humanism and brotherhood, the world is coming to Japan in its hour of need. In a state of devastation, Japan has a long, painful road to recovery. But having overcome the death and destruction of World War Two more than sixty years ago, the Japanese can take comfort in knowing that they have done it once before. That is to survive a calamity and to prosper in the peace that followed.


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