It’s my job to drive straight into the heart of disaster zones.
On 11 March, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a monstrous tsunami that smashed into Japan’s northeast coast, killing more than 15 000 people in minutes and reducing entire towns to rubble. In the days that followed, more than 80 000 Japanese citizens fled their homes after the tsunami started a meltdown at three of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. Those citizens left their whole lives behind, and most are still living as refugees. But in early April, I drove into the wreckage of Japan’s coastal towns to see what lessons I could learn in the ruins.
As an electrical engineer with a keen interest in what I call ”disaster forensics,” I travel to the worst natural disaster sites around the world to assess the damage inflicted on communication networks and electric power grids. I’ve surveyed the aftermath of three major Gulf Coast hurricanes, including Katrina, and I’ve stood in the rubble caused by earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan. As I’ve collected field data, I’ve begun to challenge the common belief that humans can’t compete with nature’s fury and that most of our creations will fail in a hurricane’s winds or a tsunami’s waves. That fatalism doesn’t sit well with me. I think that studying the world’s worst natural disasters can lead to better designs and critical infrastructures that can better withstand the brunt of a storm or the upheaval of an earthquake.
Of all the assessments I’ve performed, my April 2011 trip to Japan was undoubtedly the most challenging—and the most heart wrenching. At that time, the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi had not been fully stabilized, and the extent of the area contaminated by radiation fallout was not clear. I drove a circuitous route on the west side of Japan’s main island because the Sendai Airport had just started limited operations, the ”bullet” train wasn’t yet back in service, and the highway from Tokyo ran within the U.S. State Department’s recommended evacuation zone. I carried all the food I would need for my five days on the road and water for my entire 10-day trip, because I’d heard stories of contaminated tap water and shortages of bottled water. I also carried a dosimeter to measure radiation levels everywhere I went and quickly left areas that set off the dosimeter.
When I started my assessment, I was surprised to find that ground-shaking damage was relatively minor for a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. But the tsunami damage was shocking. As I stood next to a damaged cell tower on a hill about 20 meters above sea level near the town of Ryoishi, I could only imagine the horror of the people who ran from the tsunami and found no safety even on that high hill. In the towns of Otsuchi, Rikuzentakata, and Onagawa I walked through eerie silences and gazed at the piles of debris that towered over my head. In Otsuchi, I stood in front of a destroyed firehouse and thought of the firefighters who died after closing the seawall gates in a desperate attempt to stop the onrushing water.