JAPAN: Research cannot predict the worst - expert

World-leading disaster research at Japanese universities and scientific institutes proved to be inadequate in the face of the massive earthquake that shook the northern Tohoku region on 11 March. It was followed by tsunamis that pounded its cities, towns and villages and swept through swathes of coastline that also hosts the Fukushima nuclear power reactors now threatening deadly meltdowns.

Cracks are also showing in Japan's much lauded earthquake disaster planning with more than 450,000 people evacuated to schools, colleges and other centres and living in nightmarish conditions without heat, food, water, medicines or even blankets.

No one had planned for the several huge tsunamis that followed close on the heels of the quake, which registered a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale at its epicenter off the coast.

"This is something totally new to Japan and we were simply unprepared," acknowledged Professor Tokiyoshi Yamada, a disaster expert at Tokyo University.

Indeed, experts say the uniqueness of each catastrophe is the key challenge to using disaster research to predict and plan for actual calamities.

For instance, said Professor Yasuo Kawawaki, head of the International Recovery Platform, well-known for its work on global disaster reduction, the huge 1995 Kobe earthquake which left more than 6,000 dead, and destroyed large parts of infrastructure in the bustling port city, became an important wake-up call for disaster experts and the city.

But few lessons could be shared with those grappling with this month's Tohoku quake, according to Kawawaki.

Kobe did not experience the wave of tsunami that swept off whole villages along kilometres of coastline. "The closest learning point for Japan today could be the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 which created destruction across countries," Kawawaki said.

But then again, he pointed out, there are huge difference that need to be taken into consideration, such as the size of affected populations, local infrastructure and fatalities that impact on rescue and recovery operation planning and implementation.

Experts have said it is too early to estimate accurately how recovery operations after the Kobe earthquake could apply to Tohoku, which is still struggling to cope with the demands of emergency assistance - hundreds, perhaps thousands are still marooned in their homes or wrecked buildings, and even survivors in evacuation centres are waiting for proper access to food, water and heat.

Kimiko Abe, 63, still in her badly shaken house in Kasenuma-shi, a village in Fukushima prefecture, sobbed in front of a television camera saying she had to rely on her 78-year-old brother to carry water from a river because the supply to her home had stopped.

In Ishinomaki, another badly-hit village in Miyagi-prefecture, 840 evacuees had to share two stoves to try to keep warm, but even those were running out of gasoline as they shivered without blankets in sub-zero temperatures. Many said they had no access to medicines or had not eaten properly since the earthquake struck last Friday.

Kawawaki's organization, a leader in research on the post-disaster recovery process, said that down the line there will definitely be areas where lessons could be learned, such as the need to swiftly erect temporary shelters that can best serve survivors, and quality trauma counseling and rehabilitation practices.

However, the overall consensus of experts is the bitter truth that Japan is struggling to control the overwhelming casualties, despite decades of preparation and research on how to cope with earthquakes and their aftermaths.

"Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world and has poured a lot into being able to deal with this natural disaster. But the stark reality is nobody was prepared for such a gigantic tremor and the crippling consequences - huge tsunamis and a nuclear power accident," Kawawaki said.

Japan has a well-staffed emergency response section in the Prime Minister's Office as well as several prestigious research departments attached to public and private universities and other organisations.

The research covers a spectrum of disaster management-related topics, from earthquake predictions to early warning systems, and disaster management and recovery in Japan and internationally.

Strict building regulations have meant Japanese construction companies can boast of safe technology able to withstand the frequent tremors that shake the country. Which is why, experts said, even skyscrapers in densely populated Tokyo were left largely unscathed and reported only seven fatalities after an earthquake of the magnitude of 5.0 hit the city.

Japan's early warning technology system is also the envy of the world. While earthquake prediction is difficult, tsunami warnings and tremor measurements pop up on television screens and mobile phones within seconds.

Perhaps one of the most crucial areas for disaster researchers to take into account of in future is the looming nuclear power catastrophe in the Fukushima power plant.

The six units of the DaiIchi power plant have had accidents as a result of badly damaged cooling systems and emergency supplies that have been swept into the sea or rendered unworkable after the tsunami. Some waves as high as 10 meters hit the complex.

Dr Masaahi Goto, a former Toshiba Company nuclear plant designer, explained to journalists that the disaster had illustrated how research into protecting nuclear power plants from earthquakes did not take into consideration a magnitude as high as 9.0 or even a high tsunami.

"The hidden danger in relying on research or simulation is not being able to predict the worst," he said.

Analysts agreed that the Tohoku earthquake would become a turning point for research. "Right now, we are learning that disaster studies must only be strengthened further as each crisis is a different learning experience," said Kawawaki.