Unpacking for a Disaster


| 3/29/2011 1:36:07 PM


Tags: Japan, Japan earthquake, Japan tsunami, nuclear power, Utne Reader Visionary, environment, politics, TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit,

Japan-disaster 

The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex’s leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn’t find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco.  You couldn’t even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn. 

The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country’s tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.

Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.

The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there’s no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.

The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster.  Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.