Japan’s response to quake offers lessons to the world
Japan has suffered more crippling earthquakes than just about any place on Earth. But its battles with natural disasters have bred innovation and turned the country into the world’s undisputed leader in responding to tremors and tsunamis. Skyscrapers are built to sway when shaken. Bullet trains are equipped with warning systems that trigger automatic brakes. Even Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines are programmed to open in emergencies, providing free drinks and snacks.
“There is nowhere in the world that is better prepared,” said David Brodie, a Vancouver-based consultant who has worked in Japan to help Canadian and British embassies prepare for earthquakes.
Japan’s preparedness and response to this quake offer lessons to the world. Some Canadian earthquake specialists are already gearing up to travel to the region.
Much of Japan’s quake innovation was born after a devastating tremor 16 years ago. The Great Hanshin earthquake, which struck near the city of Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995, caused thousands of buildings and part of an expressway to collapse. Dozens of fires raged, but Japanese government officials were slow to respond and reluctant to accept foreign help. About 6,400 people died.
The degree of devastation from Friday’s massive seismic event, which struck the island nation’s northeast coast, isn’t fully known, although the death toll is expected to exceed 1,000. Even in a country as prepared as Japan, little more can be done in the face of an 8.9 magnitude offshore quake that unleashed a 10-metre tsunami. It’s the fifth-largest jolt the world has experienced since 1900.
Japan has some of the most advanced building codes in the world. It has pioneered designs and techniques that help new and old buildings withstand quakes. The goal is to create ductile structures, buildings that sway instead of crumbling when shaken violently by tremors, said Murat Saatcioglu, a structural engineering professor at the University of Ottawa and past president of the Canadian Association for Earthquake Engineering. If designed and built properly with steel bracing and reinforced concrete shear walls like those found in elevator shafts, new buildings shouldn’t collapse, although windows, drywall and pipes may break. The main challenge in Japan and in other earthquake-prone regions lies in older buildings. The Japanese are pioneering a retrofitting technique using fibre-reinforced polymer, a light but sturdy material originally developed for airplane wings. As soft as cloth and delivered in rolls like wallpaper, a building’s columns and walls can be shrouded in this black-coloured plastic that includes cotton fibres. The material, which can be painted and is also used to reinforce old bridge columns, creates the give sought in quake-resistant buildings.
Millions of Tokyo commuters were stranded for six hours when the capital’s massive subway system ground to a halt. Japan’s bullet trains also stopped running. The high-speed bullet-train network has a special Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System, which can detect an earthquake and trigger an alarm that enables automatic braking. This has served as a model for other quake-warning systems.
After finding their homerooms and catching up on summer activities, the first day of the Japanese school year sees children of all ages participate in a mandatory earthquake drill. Since 1960, the Japanese government has marked Sept. 1 – the anniversary of the 1923 Tokyo quake – as Disaster Prevention Day, with most public and private buildings reviewing their evacuation protocol. Life on the Pacific Ring of Fire means a constant state of preparation for the big one, and when Friday’s earthquake hit, evacuation zones were quickly established within schools, embassies and community centres across the country. These designated sites are stocked with tents, generators and enough food and supplies to house their visitors for days, if necessary. Near the coast, tsunami-evacuation routes are marked on large public road maps.
The cell-phone lifeline
Long before Google introduced its People Finder tool, Japan had a nation-wide searchable database for people to locate one another after a natural disaster. The system, supported by the country’s largest telecommunications companies, allows mobile-phone users to send text messages indicating whether they are safe or need assistance. The information is logged in a public database that friends and relatives can search by cell-phone number. It is one part of a communication network that is designed to facilitate the flow of information, while reducing the burden on public officials. In the hours after this week’s quake and its aftershocks, major cell-phone companies restricted access to voice calls in certain networks as part of a national strategy to maintain airspace for emergency service personnel. But text message and email systems remained functional, and in a country where almost everyone is wired and the television network was down, people kept up to date on the situation via iPads and smart phones. These gizmos even played a role in the country’s early warning system, with cell-phone customers on the large networks receiving text message “red alerts” immediately before the walls started shaking.
A market niche
Earthquake preparedness has emerged as a small cottage industry in Japan, with home seismographs that look like fancy alarm clocks and personal, mobile versions that predict when shock waves will reach a given location. One fashion company even produced the IZAt (Immediate Zip Aid Tarp), a jacket that converts into a temporary shelter. The durable fabric can be used to transport the injured and the jacket’s zippers allow pieces to be combined to build larger structures. Even the public utility Tokyo Gas has been creative with its disaster messaging, distributing a special line of candy, the packaging of which is printed with instructions on how to switch off your gas line after an earthquake.