Preparing for major disasters

Yesterday, the world’s attention was on Japan, upon the disaster wreaked by a magnitude 8.9 temblor that ruptured off the northeastern coast of Honshu island, and by the resultant tsunami that inundated Sendai and other parts of the archipelago. The latter, the mega-tsunami, caused more devastation than what brought it on. The Japanese call it ôtsunami (大津波).

I expect that the major news wires will soon publish damages amounting to tens of millions of dollars. Infrastructure damages alone, such as reported in the video here, could spell financial difficulties for the Japanese government. (More videos of the devastation in Japan on this site.) And what about the costs in terms of ruined lives, serious setbacks in all types of businesses, disrupted international trade…?

There is, however, a silver lining. People died due to the earthquake and its after-effects, but not in staggering numbers as might have been expected. The decades-old diaster-readiness preparations by the Japanese people and their government saved countless lives yesterday.

As The New York Times reports:

Had any other populous country suffered the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that shook Japan on Friday, tens of thousands of people might already be counted among the dead. So far, Japan’s death toll is in the hundreds, although it is certain to rise.

Over the years, Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis. The Japanese, who regularly experience smaller earthquakes and have lived through major ones, know how to react to quakes and tsunamis because of regular drills — unlike Southeast Asians, many of whom died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because they lingered near the coast.

In Davao City, we have a number of emergency-response mechanisms supported by various organizations: from the Filipino-Chinese volunteer fire brigade to Central 911. Dabawenyos feel safe because, besides the presence of these life-saving organizations, the city is well-protected from natural calamities by Mt. Apo and its attendant mountain range to the west, and by Samal Island to the south. Mt. Apo shields Davao City from typhoons, and the island in the gulf serves as a buffer against the southwest monsoon (“habagat”) and a possible tsunami onslaught.

We mustn’t be too sure of ourselves, though. This year-round even weather and agreeable climate are like sirens soothing us into complacency. On the one hand, we have these (presumably) well-trained emergency-response teams standing ready to be deployed in times of need. But on the other, it’s doubtful that the general population itself is prepared for disaster.

Residents of the city now number close to 1.5 million people, if my estimates are correct. That does not yet take into account the huge number of transients coming into the city by day. If a major disaster strikes, this population could turn into a hysterical mob — a frenzied swarm that could exacerbate any dangerous situation. I doubt that a handful of professionals, no matter how hard they’ve trained to face calamities, could handle a panicked, confused mass of people.

What saved the day for Japan was the manner in which her citizens responded to the situation. On Twitter and other online services, I saw reports about the Japanese calmly evacuating affected areas, helping out their less fortunate neighbors, and generally responding in a composed and thoughtful way. That doesn’t come naturally to people being threatened by the volatility of Mother Nature. It’s clearly borne out of a keen awareness of the possibility of danger happening anytime, coupled with unremitting emergency drills.

Of course, it helped that the resource-rich Japanese government has long established preventive infrastructure to mitigate the ravages of nature (dikes, sea barriers, etc). We don’t have those here. But we could, in our way, emulate the Japanese people’s discipline and sense of community. The second is already innate in us: our value of bayanihan, which we only need to hone by training for disaster preparedness.

We need to be aware of what to do in times of peril, and how to do it right so that we all do it as a community. That way, the weak are carried through to safety and the strong are able to give more for the benefit of all. The alternative: mass hysteria.

@nerveending on Twitter remarked:

Everytime there’s an earthquake story, we wring our hands about how unprepared we are: and then we go on our merry way.

The local government of Davao — and those of other cities and town across the country — would do well to enforce preventive measures as soon as humanly possible. And do it sustainably. Our emergency-response teams could be tapped to conduct information drives covering earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions (Mt. Apo is active, and Mt. Talomo could be as well). Safe zones could be identified and fortified, then barangays could conduct drills with those zones in mind. I am sure the people behind Davao’s disaster coordinating council have already worked out plans for such community drills and more. All it takes now is for the government and community leaders to get their acts together and get the ball rolling.

Since Davao City (mistakenly shown as being part of Davao del Sur, as always) was listed as one of the tsunami watch areas yesterday, I was asked by a friend who lives in Thailand: “Is Davao prepared for a major tsunami?” What do you think?

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3 Responses to “Preparing for major disasters”

  1. Nonoy says:

    As what I've heard on TV from PHIVOCS and some members of the Defense Department , the Philippines, even Davao, is not ready yet for a major tsunami. Even in Japan as being known for her preparedness in any major catastrophe, the preparation done was not enough to avoid it. Japanese had been warned that a Tsunami would break loose anytime because of the 7 something magnitude quake that hit them few weeks ago, but still hundreds of people died on it. But at least it was mitigated from a hundred thousand people in 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. n nEven worse, the tsunami that occurred had made the nuclear power plant's cooling system broke down, that made the people near the area to evacuate. 178 died, with 584 missing, and 947 people were injured, bodies still counting n nIt is just too difficult to prevent and avoid a powerful force of nature, not even a human ingenuity and sophisticated technology can save human lives. The response of the citizens to the calamity might help. But with a tsunami, there's no way people can prepared for it.

    • Blogie says:

      True, no amount of preparation can assure 0 death or 0 financial loss. However, when everyone is prepared, the damage could be lessened significantly. Thanks for your thoughts, Noy!


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