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
Eight point nine. I quickly slapped open my browser, and the Guardian
webpage promptly came up. Incredible devastation, mostly caused by the
No country on earth is better prepared for a massive earthquake than
Japan. Nobody has better building codes, and nobody has better emergency
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
There's a brilliant animated movie, “The Grave of the Fireflies” by Isao
. 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
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
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
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