Friday, March 11, 2011

Tragic ground thunder

I woke up this morning to hear people talking about a possible tsunami in California, which turned out to be a minor footnote to the Great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 (東北大震災).

As far as I can tell, one person died from the tsunami in California, while more than 1,300 have died in Japan. Damage in California was less than $20 million and in Japan it is likely over $100 billion. Still, the insipid Bay Area TV reports concentrated on the 3' tidal wave in California rather than the horrific destruction in Japan from the quake, fires and a 30'+ tidal wave. (The NYT story I read this morning spent 1/3 on Japan and 2/3 on the possible effects elsewhere of the tsunami.)

NHK reported that the 8.9† earthquake was the strongest in Japan 140 year recorded history — greater than the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake (淡路大震災) that killed more than 6,000 people in and around Kobe and the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake (関東大震災) that killed 140,000 people in greater Tokyo.

Obviously Japanese building standards have improved over the last century — along with California, Japan has the best seismic safety standards in the world. However, the state of California has never experienced an earthquake of this magnitude, so our preparedness remains TBD.

The quake was centered 80 miles from Sendai, a town of 900,000 about 190 miles NNE of Tokyo. Sendai was the nearest major city to the quake, and it was heartbreaking to see the damage to this beautiful city. During my visits to Japan in the 1990s, it was the one city I could imagine living in — large enough to be cosmopolitan for a foreigner, but small enough to escape the oppressive crowding of Tokyo and Osaka.

But even more heartbreaking will be the pictures from the small coastal town of Matsushima (松島), proclaimed one of Japan’s three prettiest sights since the 17th century (日本三景). Given the damage to Sendai from a wave that travelled 6 miles inland (according to NHK), it’s hard to imagine how much will be left standing in this historic fishing village. One can only pray that the 16,000 residents made it to higher ground.

Note on title: according to my favorite online E-J dictionary, the Kanji symbols for earthquake (地震) mean ground and thunder.

† Update: The USGS has since upgraded the quake to 9.0, and estimates now say thousands (if not more than 10,000) coastal residents are missing and may have been swept to sea.

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