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Five Years After Tohoku

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

This week marks the five-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. For most people, that event calls up memories of death and injury, economic losses, disruption, and nuclear meltdown. Almost 20,000 people died, and entire towns were erased. But efforts to prepare Tohoku clearly saved lives. Its lessons, if applied in other vulnerable places, can save even more.

Just last week, for example, in the Indonesian city of Padang, a tsunami scare sent panicked residents into gridlocked traffic (below). Had this been an actual tsunami, they would have died trying to evacuate. Compare this scenario to what happened in Japan.

Padang traffic jam after a tsunami scare in 2016. Photo: Didi Aryadi

The magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake generated exceptionally strong ground shaking and huge tsunami waves along the northeast coast of Japan. About 5 percent of the population in the inundation zone died. By contrast, when the next tsunami strikes Padang, it is anticipated to kill as much as 50 percent of the population in the inundation zone. Potentially 400,000 people will have little chance to escape the tsunami’s waves.

In Japan, tall buildings and earthen mounds (such as the one below) are designed to provide refuge where there is no natural high ground. Signs mark areas subject to inundation, which are pre-determined by computer simulations. Evacuation routes are well-signed. High walls, some taller than 30 feet, defend many towns. Green belts to dissipate tsunami waves line most of the coast. And people, including school children, regularly practice safety drills.

A man-made earthen mound in Tohoku, shortly after the 2011 tsunami. Photo: Brian Tucker

Why don’t more communities apply these same science, engineering and public policies? One reason is that poorer countries have far fewer resources to invest in prevention. Sadly, outside aid mostly arrives in the form of disaster relief--too late to avert tragedy: studies suggest that of all international humanitarian investment in disaster risk reduction, only about 1-10 percent goes to preparedness.

Another reason is human psychology. People view earthquakes and tsunamis as “remote” and thus underestimate their personal risk. We can learn from campaigns that convince people to use seat belts, practice safe sex, and stop smoking. These target similarly “remote” health threats. Social science and marketing techniques can help us create messages that people will trust and programs that will motivate action.

Our global community has a big toolbox to reduce tsunami deaths. It’s time to use it.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

Brian Tucker President, GeoHazards International


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