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Three Cheers for the Sendai Quake
Of course, those ungrateful Japanese might not see the blessing

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
March 12, 2011

I have a friend who lives in Southern California. She's lived there for over 50 years, and, as you might imagine, has experienced a few earthquakes during that time. The worst of them have been moderate, but even moderate quakes can be pretty jarring experiences. Nobody ever forgets the first time they feel an earthquake. So over the years, she's become a little bit fixated on the subject of earthquakes.

She only recently got web access, and quickly discovered that she could get automated emails from USGS advising her of seismic activity. She signed up, and against my advice, requested automatic notification of all earthquakes above 3.0 on the magnitude scale.

Turns out there's several hundred of those a day world wide, and her mailbox quickly filled up. So she changed the cutoff point to magnitude six and above. This brought it down to a much more reasonable volume.

Then she started forwarding them to me. Since even with tight spam control I get about 150 messages a day in my mailbox, when I saw another one of those advisories when I got up yesterday, I thought about sending her a polite note asking her to knock it off. But the notification itself caught my attention. Honshu. Again. That was about the fifth earthquake, magnitude six or above, the northern island had had over the past couple of days. I wondered if something was brewing. I glanced at the magnitude.

Eight point nine. I quickly slapped open my browser, and the Guardian webpage promptly came up. Incredible devastation, mostly caused by the tsunamis.

No country on earth is better prepared for a massive earthquake than Japan. Nobody has better building codes, and nobody has better emergency relief organizations.

But nobody can really prepare for thirty-foot high walls of water that come churning up the beach at 250 miles an hour. I wonder how many residents of Sendai stood up trembling after the heaving stopped, and looked around, amazed that while piles of books had fallen and pictures had slid off the walls, their homes were intact. And then the windows shattered as the seawater drove in...

Like most people, I went about a typical workday, but poked my nose in for updates on Japan, and the tsunamis. I saw the same fantastic images, the destruction of the Sendai airport, the line of giant waves marching toward the Japanese shore, the incredible inundation of the farmlands, the eerie whirlpool with the luxury yacht caught in it like a child's toy in a bathtub.

And everyone is watching to see how badly those three nuclear power plants are damaged. That there was a big explosion at the Fukushima plant a few hours ago has everyone rattled, and serves as a reminder that when nuclear power is involved, no disaster is local. The Japanese government is sending mixed messages, first assuring everyone there has been no large-scale release of radiation, whilst simultaneously evacuating everyone within 20km of the plant, and giving them iodine to help ward off radiation sickness. Yes, it's a distraction from what might be the biggest earthquake in Japan's 4,000 year history, but really, nothing to see here. Move along.

When I turned to the American media—mostly to see if the tsunamis were going to be a big problem for us or not (not, it turned out)--coverage was, as always, mediocre and self-absorbed. The best ones simply streamed video from NHK, al Jazeera, or the BBC.

Then, at the McClatchy website, this headline caught my eye. “Quake, tsunami could awaken Japan's struggling economy”

It struck me as a quintessentially American headline. The American press, for years, has been poisoned with the notion that “what's good for General Motors is good for the country” with the result that Americans are subjected to a barrage of chirpy news stories that explain that increased production, which it may seem to involve harder work for less pay, is actually a godsend for America's struggling millionaires, who can barely put together enough to afford a third yacht.

The article itself isn't nearly as heartless as the headline. The writer, Kevin Hall, is very clearly aware of the horror and privation Japan is suffering right now, and the article might be nothing more than a slightly misguided effort to offer the Japanese people a little bit of hope. Yes, things will eventually get better again.

This isn't the biggest disaster Japan has suffered. Indeed, you need only go back 66 years – in living memory for many Japanese—for a time that was even worse. Japan in 1945 was a seemingly endless horror story, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki forming only a tiny part of a vast national nightmare.

There's a brilliant animated movie, “The Grave of the Fireflies” by Isao Takahata . It details the struggle of two children to survive in the waning days of World War II. It's an emotionally shattering movie, one that you will never forget. It will scar you. The great irony of the movie comes at the end, when Kobe, the shattered ruins of 1945, is seen as a glittering new metropolis just a few years later. (The waves of American B-29s are as remote and uninvolved in the affairs of the children of Kobe as the tsunami was in the affairs of the children of Sendai. )

Things did get better, and yes, the utter destruction of World War II sparked huge economic growth in Japan. Just as Hitler's little exercise in urban renewal turned out to be good for the German economy – at least half of it – after the war.

Still, it really is a bit cold to be talking about happy days are here again when the B-29s are still flying overhead, or the fires and floods still rage.

Hall may not have even been insensitive. He probably faced the same dilemma all reporters have when a huge shared experience like the Sendai quake comes along. What do you write about that 5,000 other writers haven't already said, and how do you describe images that nearly all of your readers have already seen? Do you talk about the yacht in the drain swirl again, or the majestic ballet of the Tokyo skyscrapers? Hall probably just wanted an original—or at least less well-trodden—approach.

I think he should have waited at least until the bodies were buried before painting it as a great new investment opportunity, is all. Even if that wasn't his intent.

Keith Olbermann, never short of opinions, took a different tack, warning that there really isn't any such thing as completely safe nuclear power, and rather grandly forecasting that the explosion at the Fukushima plant was the death knell of the resurrection of nuclear power in America.

But I think this cautionary tale, and Hall's offer of hope, miss a bigger story.

My friend in the LA area can relax a bit; the historical record suggests she will not experience an 8.9 monster where she lives. Seven point five, perhaps, but that's only about 2% as violent as an 8.9.

However, this is the third monster earthquake the “Rim of Fire” - the earthquake and volcano band that surrounds the entire Pacific – has experienced in just the past five years. There was the huge undersea quake of Boxing Day 2006 and flooded thousands of miles of coast and killed over a quarter million people. There was the huge Chile quake of last year. And now this.

Yet to weigh in on this seismic conveyor belt is the region capable of delivering the biggest earthquakes of all—9.5, even 10 on the scale.

That would be the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to Alaska and out along the Aleutian Islands. The Cascadian subduction zone is, as they say, locked and loaded, and seismologists estimate it could peel off a 9.0 monster at any old time. Recent estimates are 37% chance of such occurring in the next 50 years.

Did I mention the volcanoes? There's hundreds of volcanoes from Mount Shasta north to Alaska, and they tend to get irritable when 9.0 earthquakes occur, and might chime in. America's answer to Sendai might be Seattle.

But cheer up, people of Seattle. Just think of the opportunities for investors you'll present!

At least, once they find your carcasses and get 'em buried.

Posted: March 18, 2011

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