DisastersIf Japan-like disaster happened in U.S., results would be far worse

Published 7 March 2012

An estimated 20,000 people died or are still missing after a massive earthquake-induced tsunami struck Japan on 11 March 2011, yet some 200,000 people were in the inundation zone at the time; experts say that if the same magnitude earthquake and tsunami hits the Pacific Northwest, the death toll will be much higher because of the lack of comparable preparation; that 90 percent rate could be the number of victims, not survivors

An estimated 20,000 people died or are still missing after a massive earthquake-induced tsunami struck Japan on 11 March 2011, yet some 200,000 people were in the inundation zone at the time.

The fact that 90 percent of the coastal region’s residents and visitors evacuated effectively is a tribute to planning and community drills, said Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University education and outreach specialist, who just returned from a disaster symposium at United Nations University in Japan.

If the same magnitude earthquake and tsunami hits the Pacific Northwest, he said, the death toll will be much higher because of the lack of comparable preparation. That 90 percent rate could be the number of victims, not survivors.

“Our human nature is not tuned in to long-term threats and 300-year-cycle disasters,” Corcoran said. “It takes a big cultural shift to go from not thinking about an earthquake and tsunami to really and truly expecting one.”

An Oregon State University release reports that although some Oregon communities have been proactive, most are so overwhelmed meeting immediate needs that tsunami preparedness is not a priority.

“The small size of Oregon coastal communities relative to the magnitude of the hazard also plays a role,” Corcoran said. “Expecting these small communities to prepare for a level of safety for seasonal homeowners and visitors from throughout the state would be somewhat akin to Portland hosting the Olympic Games. They couldn’t do it alone.”

“To be fair, the Japanese have been dealing with this threat for hundreds of years and it has been on our minds for a decade or so,” he added. “But we had better start taking the eventuality of an earthquake and tsunami a lot more seriously.”

A Sea Grant Extension specialist, Corcoran has worked for several years with Oregon coastal communities on earthquake and tsunami preparedness, as well as resilience to major storms and other natural hazards. He recently toured several communities in Japan that had been ravaged by the tsunami, most of which had been completely destroyed below the tsunami inundation line.

“What was striking,” Corcoran noted, “is how intact the homes and schools were just above that elevation. There was a clear line of safety. If you got above it, you were safe. If you didn’t, you weren’t. It wasn’t that far for most people – you just had to know where the line was and get to it. And most of them did.”

The release notes

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