Just one week after the earthquake in Japan we are already seeing numerous articles and news stories about "lessons learned" from the earthquake and tsunami. There's certainly no doubt that we learn a lot from disasters and we should continuously strive to improve our capacity to respond. However, I share the opinion of one of my collections who once told me, "It is not a lesson learned until you actually do something about it." I'm afraid that he will be proven right again and that we will really learn nothing from the suffering in Japan.
The problem is that we learn the technical lessons of disasters very well. We have made amazing technological improvements in predicting disasters, showing graphically how they occurred and improving warning systems. However, we still continue to ignore the fundamental lessons readily apparent in every disaster.
1. Mitigation saves lives
Japan is the most advanced country on earth when it comes to earthquake mitigation. While the death toll from this disaster will be high, it might have been considered higher without this commitment to mitigation. At this writing, we still do not know how many have died but the unofficial estimate of 10,000 to 15,000, while horrendous, is less than 0.05% of the population of the hardest hit area, suggesting that the money and effort expanded by the Japanese may have saved a considerable number of lives.
However, in the United States we will continue to ignore this lesson as we have in the past and provide only limited funding to pre-disaster mitigation.
2. Disasters will not follow your plan
Japan is one of the most highly bureaucratized and efficient countries in the world yet the government is struggling to provide basic services to the disaster zone. This is not the result of inefficiency or poor planning but the realities of an environment where supporting infrastructure has been completely overwhelmed. There are almost half a million people displaced, over 300,000 in shelters, roads are impassible and utilities non-existent.
The government must not only cope with these obstacles but must also manage the influx of international aid, deal with the damaged nuclear power plants, and maintain government functions in other parts of the country.
Disasters are by nature chaotic and, by definition, overwhelm the resources of local government. Yet we continue to write plans that assume that local government will be fully functional and encourage this expectation in our citizens instead of fostering a culture of preparedness and self-reliance. In addition, our plans do not acknowledge the high degree of improvement required in resolving disaster problems. We substitute checklists and rigid procedures for management systems that would allow us to adapt to rapidly changing situations.
3. Disasters will surprise you
The Japan Earthquake Prediction Committee predicted a magnitude 7 earthquake near Sendai City sometime within 30 years. The size and magnitude of the recent earthquake took them by surprise and they are puzzled by the series of quakes within the 5-7 magnitude range that have been occurring in the area since then as these are clearly not aftershocks.
My colleagues in the US Geological Survey and other seismological organizations will be the first to tell you that earthquake predictions are educated guesses based on the best available evidence. They are not hard predictions of what will happen. Yet we base our building codes and emergency plans on them as if they are proven fact.
We see the same thing, by the way, in the use of flood insurance maps, forgetting that the original intent of these maps was to set insurance rates, not predict where floodwaters will actually go.
Neverheless, we will continue to misunderstand the science behind our predictions and use these predictions as planning parameters rather than as additions and indicators.
4. Disasters get people's attention
People really do not take preparedness seriously. This is because we have made it something special rather than trying to integrate it into our daily lives as the Japanese have done. However, events like the recent earthquake offer a very short window of opportunity when we have the attention of the public and elected officials. People are concerned and afraid and looking for reassurance.
Instead of leveraging this brief advantage, we are instead reinforcing one of the principal barriers to preparation: the belief that "it will not happen here". While I have always been against using scare tactics to encourage preparedness, I think our recent reassurances to the public have been wrong. Instead of saying, "it will not happen here," our message should be, "maybe not the same way, but, yes, something like this could definitely happen here."
People deserve to know the truth and the truth is we are increasingly vulnerable to opponents. Our infrastructure is aging and brittle and harsh economic times mean that the funds to maintain and replace critical infrastructure are no longer available.
So will we really learn anything from the Japanese experience? I sincerely hope so but I'm not optimistic.