Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More than half full -- the survivors

The basic message of this post: many survived and you can, too.

A couple years after the big Sumatra tsunami in 2004, I spent a long weekend on the coast of Oregon with a dear friend. I visit shorelines a lot as a coastal geologist, but I also love to visit them just for their subtle to spectacular beauty. When I am there, I do look around and think about what I will do and where I will go if I feel an earthquake. I also bring up the subject of tsunamis when I meet people on the coast, and ask them what their plan is. One man in this town said if he felt an earthquake he was going to “kiss his a— good-bye” (the idiom means to “give up and die”). I responded that he had an easy evacuation because there were hills right behind the narrow town along the beach.

Last night Tanioka-san and I had a chance to talk – he’s very tired from so much work, including trips to Tokyo to start reviewing what happened, and running a big public forum in Sapporo on Sunday. Yuichi was kind enough to answer some questions for me at the end of his day – it was after 8 PM when we met. We talked some science and then started reflecting on the people, both the victims and also the tsunami scientists who have been responsible for disaster planning and mitigation, and how terrible they feel. I think the hardest stories to hear are about residents in these towns who went up onto vertical evacuation structures and were washed away in some cases (not all), because the tsunami was bigger than anyone had planned for.

I said we need to tell the scientists and the planners involved that they did indeed save lives, many lives.

Tanioka repeated to me a story he heard about Kamaishi town. The children there had been trained to lead people to high ground. They did as trained, but when they watched the tsunami approaching, they realized that they were not high enough, so they led people to higher ground. All these people survived.

So let’s focus on the survivors. I look again at the grim statistics for number of dead and missing and then compare them to the vast number of refugees – the many many people who survived. Many of them survived because they had the knowledge and opportunity to do the right thing. It’s hard on the tsunami research community right now to feel the losses due to what didn’t go right, but let’s focus on what did go right, and how the next time it happens, the preparation and response of people at risk can save lives.

We learn these lessons by talking with survivors. Brian Atwater spearheaded a brochure that teaches some basic lessons, based on interviews with survivors from the giant 1960 Chile tsunami and elsewhere

English: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/c1187/ (below the main points with a little annotation from observations so far in 2011 Japan):

Spanish: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/c1218/

1) Many Will Survive the Earthquake – look at videos from Japan; little obvious damage before the tsunami arrival; afterwards, towns gone

2) Heed Natural Warnings – don’t wait for official warnings if you feel an earthquake, see strange water behavior, hear roaring water

3) Heed Official Warnings – just don’t wait for them if you sense any of the natural warnings and you are near the shore!

4) Expect Many Waves – some people in Chile died because they went back too soon. In Crescent City, CA, the largest wave is typically around #7, a couple hours after the first.

5) Head for High Ground and Stay There – see number 4

6) Abandon Belongings

7) Don’t Count on the Roads – can be earthquake damaged

8) Go to an Upper Floor or Roof of a Building if you cannot get to high ground.

9) Climb a Tree if you can’t get to a building

10) Climb onto Something that Floats if you can’t climb a structure – last ditch

11) Expect the Waves to Leave Debris

12) Expect Quakes to Lower Coastal Land

13) Expect Company – survivors will need to be sociable

14) This is my own addition – Much attention goes to the giant events we have had recently, but many tsunamis are not as large as these biggest ones, but still require your attention. It’s a cliché, but true—better safe than sorry.

Read the stories in this brochure, and read these stories about the survivors of Kesennuma City, trying to get back on their feet. Life does and will go on:

from 17 March: http://www.slate.com/id/2288248/

from 22 March: http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201103210092.html

Right: Women walk through debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, after Friday's powerful earthquake-triggered tsunami hit Japan's east coast. Picture: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

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