Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Limits of Technology and Policy: Taking the Initiative

I remember reading an account of the events of the Titanic disaster in 1912 when, during the trials and hearings that followed the tragic sinking of the “unsinkable” ship, a shipping officer was asked why there were not sufficient lifeboats for the entire host of passengers and crew.  The response was, essentially, that the ship had the legally required number of lifeboats, but it was clearly not enough for all passengers—even if they had been launched successfully (many were not) and filled to capacity (again, many were not).

I thought of this as I read a book titled “Ghosts of the Tsunami” by Richard Lloyd Parry, a correspondent for the Times of London, based in Tokyo.  Shortly after the massive earthquake and devastating tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in 2011 and killed an estimated 22,000 people, he spent a great deal of time interviewing survivors of some of the areas most affected by the tragedy.  The book relates heart-wrenching, personal accounts of families who lost loved ones—particularly those of the 74 children (of 108) lost at Okawa Elementary School. Like the victims of the Titanic, many of the deaths that fateful day were attributed to insufficient, outdated policies or practices.

In a landmark article on the “lessons learned” from the tragedy, Japanese scientists Shunichi Koshimura and Nobuo Shuto describe the events as follows:

At least 50min elapsed after the earthquake before the tsunami attacked (Okawa Elementary School). After the strong ground shaking had stopped and the tsunami warning had been issued, the teachers and pupils gathered on school grounds to discuss where to evacuate to. They had two options. One option was a hill with a steep slope behind the school, which looked difficult for small children to climb. The other was a small overlook at the river bridge, 200m away from the school. Consequently, teachers decided to head for the bridge, walking along the river. Shortly thereafter, the tsunami penetrated along the river and overtopped the riverbank, sweeping away pupils and teachers.

The scientists (and, according to author Parry, the court verdict that followed) determined that, while the accepted practices and procedures for dealing with the events were rigidly followed, common sense should have prevailed and teachers should have prepared for the worst.  Parry contrasts the experience of another local school, as do the scientists Koshimura and Shuto in their research article, saying:

The  so-called ‘Miracle  of  Kamaishi’  is  very  good  practice  by  school  children  who  took  the  initiatives for  a community’s evacuation in Unosumai, Kamaishi city, Iwate prefecture. In Unosumai, students of Kamaishi East Junior High School immediately ran out of the school to higher ground after the earthquake. Their very quick and resolute response prompted local residents and even the students and  teachers  in  a  neighbouring  elementary  school  to  follow  and  consequently  saved lots of lives. The response of Kamaishi East Junior High School students was based on the three principles of evacuation taught by Prof. Toshitaka Katada of Gumma University. He told the students not to trust hazard maps, to make their best efforts in any situation, and to take the initiative of evacuation in the community. These principles are now highly valued as one of best practice/outcome of disaster education. The response capabilities the children learned at school helped them to overcome a disaster that exceeded all worst-case scenarios.

Koshimura and Shuto call what happened after the Tsunami a “paradigm shift” for regional planner, engineers and government leaders.  The lessons learned regarding the insufficiency of the accepted policies and practices surrounding Tsunami disaster preparedness and response are carefully described in their article. They include policies, training, public communication improvements, and significant changes to physical barriers and other engineered mitigation devices—many of which are still being constructed.  And, while the actual effectiveness of those far-reaching changes has (thankfully) yet to be tested in actuality, the computer modeling applied by the authors and others is quite promising. Among them are the following (images from the article):

On tsunami hazard maps, knowing which areas are at risk is critical, but one must also recognize the predictive limits of science and technology; hazard maps cannot always accurately predict areas at risk.

Prefectural and local governments have developed their own recovery and reconstruction plans, which require 10 years to be completed (National budget is allocated for the first 5 years). These plans consist of the combination of structural prevention/mitigation, urban planning, preparedness and provide suggestions for land-use management, relocation, housing reconstruction and tsunami disaster mitigation plans. The key role of academia, from the engineering point of view, is to verify and evaluate if these plans will really work for future disaster reduction.

Coastal infrastructure such as breakwaters and seawalls cannot always protect life and property: even great seawalls can fail…. High rise RC buildings with robust columns and walls can withstand tsunami flow depths over 2m and can be used for vertical evacuation. However, at the time, at least eight RC or steel construction buildings have been found overturned or washed away. This fact led to a revision of the requirement for structural design of tsunami evacuation buildings, specifically focusing on the tsunami loading effect. School buildings should have similar construction requirements, in order to ensure children’s safety.

Lastly, public education is the most important part of tsunami disaster management. Prof. Katada’s three principles: not to trust hazard maps (recognize the predictive limits), make the best efforts in any situation and take the initiative of evacuation in a community; these are highly recommended attitudes to overcome a disaster that exceeds all worst-case scenarios.

Finally, following my reading of Mr. Parry’s deeply haunting book on the subject, I found myself going through Google Earth images of the devastated areas of Tohoku.  Following the path of the Kitakami river, north of Sendai, I noted the banks of the river—even miles inland—are cleared of development. Wide brown swaths of emptiness still exist—12 years after the event—where there were once businesses, villages and farms.  The tan nothingness contrasts with the rich green of the forested mountains.  I zoomed in and panned across the banks of the river until I noticed only a single structure remained. Upon entering “street view” and reading the sign on what appeared to be a memorial in front of the building, my heart sank: “Ōkawa Shōgakkō” (Okawa Elementary School).  The school still stands as a lone tribute to the lives lost.  While the building withstood the onslaught of water, it was completely submerged and all who remained in or near it were killed or are still missing.

Even in a country that is the world-renown example of disaster preparedness, there is still much to do. 


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