Earthquakes And The Wealth Divide: Comparing Japan, Italy, Haiti

An Italian geologist explains disaster tolls' links to poverty and bad planning, and why Japan's quake damage could have been much worse. But the tsunami is a reminder that even prevention has its limits.

Japanese quake (Yuichiro Haga)

They have survived the end of the world, the "Big One," the most powerful of them all. Friday's earthquake in northern Japan was the one that's been coming since the last mega-temblor in 1923, when only a few buildings were left standing and an entire nation was left in shock. This was the one you can only survive through culture and awareness, if you've been trained for an emergency, and if construction has been sound.

They are men and women like us, the Japanese, but they managed to stay calm as the earth was shaking. In the face of one of the six or seven most powerful earthquakes ever, they exited in an orderly fashion from the skyscrapers that had just stopped swaying like trees in the wind. They didn't wail against "nature's assassin" or the "killer quake."

In Japan, catastrophic events that are yet to come are called "tokai" or "chokkagata," which expresses an awareness of the future's inevitability. Earthquakes, like volcanic eruptions, are part of both national and personal daily planning.

A quake like the one in Sendai would have caused tens of thousands of deaths in Italy and hundreds of thousands in Iran. Certainly a quake like the 6.3-magnitude one that hit L'Aquila two years ago wouldn't have even knocked over a book shelf in Japan. In and around the Italian city, 300 people were killed.

In the future, natural disasters of catastrophic proportions will be marked by a class division that is already evident today: well-prepared rich countries can avoid an apocalyptic toll, poor nations that can't prepare themselves won't -- as was shown by the 7.0 magnitude quake in Haiti, which killed some 317,000. And within those nations, the desperate who are crammed in favelas on the edges of cities are more at risk than those who live in safer zones.

But this quake is something more. It is evidence that prevention is the only serious and scientific tool that really works, which actually allows a nation to save money in case of an emergency. Instead of going after the delusional idea of a prediction that has so far proven impossible, it would be good to follow the lead of the country that has the best prevention in the world, one that relies on research and ultimately on a centuries-long culture of risk assessment.

Anti-quake drills, which in Italy would be contrasted with superstitious rituals, over there actually save lives: when the earth is shaking underneath one's feet and panic takes hold, repeating a well-rehearsed routine saves more lives than saying the rosary.

A citizen of Tokyo has a 40 percent chance that a 7-magnitude quake will hit his or her land within the next 10 years, as the islands that make up Japan are located right at the point where the Pacific plate and the Asia plate enter into contact, generating quakes and eruptions. It has been this way long before men appeared on the Earth, and it will be so for a long time to come. Everybody in Japan knows that, and nobody is interested in placing blame on destiny.

Still, a seaquake – a tsunami -- is a whole different story. It runs as fast as a jet, some 800 kilometers per hour, and in the open sea nobody can feel it. As soon as it reaches the coastline, where the waters becoming more shallow, it can generate waves as tall as buildings, as it unleashes a power that can uproot everything that stands in its way.

One can only defend oneself from such a powerful tsunami by getting as far away as possible from the coast, and as high up as possible. Most people's lives take place within two meters of the earth's surface, and there is no cement strong enough against the tsunami. (Japan actually did try anti-tsunami walls but they never worked)

For this reason, the tsunami will end up being much deadlier than the quake itself: no warning system can work when there's so little time. Immunity from natural disaster is simply not within human reach.

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