Dynamist Blog


Sean Kinsell revises and amends his remarks on Japanese earthquake preparedness, lest readers get the mistaken iimpression that Japanese people just run out into the street:

In Tokyo, you stay inside, too, but you have to wait for instructions. When the leader for your neighborhood comes around and announces that everyone has to leave, you must go along. There are two big problems in Japan that I don't think California has: for one thing, traditional Japanese houses (1) are framed with nice, burnable wood, (2) are shoehorned in in nice, fire-sharing proximity to each other, and (3) are roofed with nice, heavy clunkers of porcelain tiles. Such houses can still be in danger even if they seem fine after the first big quake, and I don't know whether retrofitting them is really even possible.

Buildings from the '80's on follow new, earthquake-proof design codes; in Kobe, they pretty much all survived intact. But even they can be in danger if they're on unstable ground, which is the other big problem. Tokyo is a filigree of old river and creek beds that have been filled in to make buildable real estate, and those areas have a proclivity for melting away underneath buildings in an earthquake (especially if the quake puts them into contact with water). The sections of the Shinkansen, major highways, and big water and gas lines that failed in Kobe turned out to have been, almost to a one, built on or into such infill.

BTW, the NHK special reported that a consultant for the Ministry of the Interior (or Ministry of Territory and Transportation, or however they Anglicize its new name) predicts 7000 deaths in the next big one to hit metro Tokyo. But there has to be lots of give in that figure. Kobe was unprepared for a major earthquake and had 6000 deaths, but it was apparently very lucky: the quake came at 6 a.m., when people were still asleep. A few hours later, the train stations and highways would have been filled with commuters. Imagine an 8.0 earthquake in Tokyo at 8 a.m. on a workday. Or better yet, don't.

Timing matters a lot to earthquake fatalities, at least in developed countries with good construction. The recent Hokkaido quake hit early in the morning, as did the 1994 Northridge quake in L.A. The 1989 San Francisco quake would have been even more devastating if the SF teams hadn't been playing in the World Series, leading people to leave work early. As a result, fewer commuters than usual were on the Bay Bridge and freeway overpasses when they collapsed.

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