11 March 2011, 14:47 hours. Magnitude 9.0, on the Richter scale, earthquake hit Japan and minutes later a tsunami flattened cities and towns in a vast area of the east coast of Japan. The quake was the bigger ever to hit Japan and considered the fourth in a century by the US Geological Survey, but the tsunami that followed it caused the most destruction and fatalities to close to 20,000 deaths.
Problems did not stop there. The tsunami hit hard the Fukushima nuclear-power plant and halt the emergency generators. Few hours after the quake the government could only guess that the reactors may melt and leak radioactivity. And order the citizens of towns around the plant to evacuate the area, and enforced a 20 kilometres safety zone around the plant. And that action saved many lives.
Japan learnt many things from this tragedy. But maybe the most important was that constant training and investment on how to handle disasters pays off. Several times over. The country spends every year millions on preparing for disasters, —earthquakes, fires, you name it— and since the private sector pays most of it, the relatively small damages and casualties for the tragedy proved the sound of the investment.
If you consider that the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 was similar but killed short to 200,000 people. Then its obvious that Japanese strengthened building standards, constant training, and orderly people make a vast difference to survive disasters, or other regretfully unavoidable tragedy. While its a fact that it will take long time for Japan to recover, it’s also truth that they are on the right track.
The huge tremor also caused political upheaval around the world. To the extreme that some countries, such as Germany, decided to get rid of their nuclear plants. The action those countries decided to take to prevent similar disasters is ending their nuclear programmes because of the inherent high risks. By any stretch of the imagination this is a true statement. But history is full of human ingenuity and courage to overcome tragedy, pain, and inherent risks of any endeavour.
That ingenuity teaches us also to go forward with caution, but never stop pushing the human kind forward. Especially natural disasters help us understand nature, its workings, its power. And by learning from accidents we grow and understand the society, the purpuse of humans, and better prepare for the future. Bright, no question about it.