Despite the devastation caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 60-foot tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, some 96% of those living and working in the most disaster-stricken region of Tōhoku made it through. Smaller earthquakes and tsunamis have killed far more people in nearby China and India. What accounts for the exceptionally high survival rate? And why is it that some towns and cities in the Tōhoku region have built back more quickly than others? Black Wave illuminates two critical factors that had a direct influence on why survival rates varied so much across the Tōhoku region following the 3/11 disasters and why the rebuilding process has also not moved in lockstep across the region. Individuals and communities with stronger networks and better governance, Daniel P. Aldrich shows, had higher survival rates and accelerated recoveries. Less-connected communities with fewer such ties faced harder recovery processes and lower survival rates. Beyond the individual and neighborhood levels of survival and recovery, the rebuilding process has varied greatly, as some towns and cities have sought to work independently on rebuilding plans, ignoring recommendations from the national government and moving quickly to institute their own visions, while others have followed the guidelines offered by Tokyo-based bureaucrats for economic development and rebuilding.
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About the Author
Daniel P. Aldrich is director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program and professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University. He is the author, most recently, of Building Resilience, has received three Fulbright Fellowships and an Abe Fellowship, and has worked as an AAAS Science and Technology Fellow at the United States Agency for International Development.
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Introduction: The Story of Three Disasters
At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shattered the chilly afternoon in Tohoku, the northeastern region of Japan's main island, Honshu. Seconds before the ground would jolt, Japan's earthquake early warning system (kinkyu jishin sokuho) detected the oncoming seismic P-waves and sent an alert: a quake was coming. Some people standing near municipal loudspeakers in Tohoku heard a prerecorded announcement about the danger, but most residents did not. Rather than dissipating quickly, like most of the hundreds of small but noticeable earthquakes that hit the country each year, the shaking continued for what many told me felt like eternity. A force equal to 600 million times the energy released over Hiroshima by the atom bomb in 1945 discharged over six minutes some 130 km (80 miles) off Japan's coast. That undersea megathrust earthquake remains among the top five most powerful ever recorded, and its power measurably slowed the earth's rotation and moved Miyagi Prefecture some 5 m (15 feet) to the east. In Tokyo, the nation's capital, hundreds of miles from the quake's epicenter, skyscrapers swayed slowly like palm trees to the sound of groaning metal.
In Tohoku itself — the region closest to the epicenter — windows shattered, steel girders bent out of shape, and computer monitors and files toppled from desks. Shelves collapsed, sprinkler pipes burst, floating ceilings caved in, and bricks fell off the front of buildings in Sendai and other Tohoku cities. Salespeople ushered customers outside, and teachers gathered their pupils in schoolyards and baseball fields dusted by snow. Many homes and buildings lost power. People hid under desks and tables, shielding their heads from falling debris; many outside lay down on the ground or hugged trees to keep from falling over. In Tokyo, water bubbled to the surface in parks built on reclaimed land as liquefaction turned the ground to mud. Once the shaking subsided, roughly 2.5 million people hurried from their office buildings in Tokyo to begin the long commute home, which for many, with trains and subways shut down, would involve hours of walking or waiting in taxi lines that stretched for hundreds of meters.
Three minutes after the earthquake stopped, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (Kishocho, or JMA) issued tsunami alerts via several different channels. Authorities broadcast warnings in Chinese, English, and Japanese. Their tsunami warnings overrode television broadcasts and blared on loudspeakers, radios, and cellular phones. Mobile phones in the coastal region operated by all of Japan's networks, including the most popular phones from NTT and SoftBank, emitted a disconcerting squeal followed by a series of messages predicting potential wave heights.
While intended to motivate people to evacuate low-lying areas of the Tohoku region, the JMA's warnings radically underestimated the tsunami heights. The 6 m (20-foot) forecast sent for the city of Onagawa, for example, underestimated what would actually be a 20 m (65-foot) wave. Similarly, the first JMA tsunami warning sent to Otsuchi predicted a 3 m (10-foot) wave, although the agency later doubled that figure to 6 m as more data came in. Other cities and villages in Tohoku also received wave height forecasts that did not match future reality. By the time the JMA revised its tsunami warnings to give more accurate wave heights, many residents had lost power for their radios and televisions or had stopped paying attention. Surveys by Japan's Cabinet Office showed that as many as 74% of residents did not hear about the changes in the predicted tsunami heights.
Along with the broadcast messages, police officers and firefighters began driving around coastal towns telling residents to evacuate (hinan shite kudasai). Many residents in the Tohoku region began to evacuate schools and businesses, following the protocols drilled into them by teachers and disaster managers. Many schoolchildren had been taught the concept of tsunami tendenko: fleeing after an earthquake without stopping. Elementary and junior high school students in Kamaishi had just received a lecture on precisely this topic from Toshitaka Katada, an engineering professor who had studied how 10-year-old Tilly Smith saved some 100 lives on a beach in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Smith, who was vacationing with her family from the UK, had learned the warning signs of impending tsunami in a science class. When she recognized those signs — deeply receding tide and frothing waters — she yelled for other beachgoers to flee to higher ground. Inspired by the young girl's impact, Katada wanted to share those lessons with students in tsunami-prone areas in Japan. The students in Kamaishi who heard Katada's lecture escaped successfully, inspiring stories of the "Kamaishi miracle." Photos taken just prior to the tsunami at the school showed older students helping younger children flee to safety.
Japanese children's books and training for older students and adults alike emphasize that residents in coastal areas should not stop even to check on family members following an earthquake; they must save themselves. For decades, authorities have held an annual Disaster Prevention Day with large-scale evacuations and simulations across Japan. Beyond training and drills, cities in Tohoku have faced actual tsunami multiple times over the past two centuries. The city of Ofunato, for example, saw 3,000 people killed in the June 16, 1896, Meiji Sanriku tsunami (more than 21,000 died in the region overall). Another 405 Ofunato residents perished in the March 3, 1933, tsunami and fires; 53 died in the May 24, 1960, Chilean tsunami. Residents across Japan, and especially those in the Tohoku region, have been exposed to the concepts and realities of disaster and have been trained to escape it.
But on March 11, 2011, not everyone immediately moved to higher ground. Close to half the residents of the coastal areas in Tohoku delayed their evacuation. Some did not think the waves could reach their homes. Several tsunami in the years and even days before March 2011 had been minuscule. A very small tsunami — some 10 cm (4 inches) high — washed up in Iwate Prefecture on March 9, setting up some residents to see the March 11 tsunami two days later as similarly harmless. Other residents recognized the potential danger but lost critical time by first checking on their loved ones or picking up children from elementary school. Some people who lived in cities surrounded by multiple lines of defense, such as thick concrete seawalls and pine forests, believed they were safe from incoming waves. In many cases, the JMA's initial warnings predicted tsunami heights that were far lower than the seawalls in those communities, so locals stayed put, figuring the walls would easily keep the water out.
A surprising number of people reported that they neither heard warnings via any medium nor were spurred to evacuate by the intense earthquake. In some communities, disaster announcement systems were damaged or silenced by the quake itself. In Natori, for example, the emergency municipal radio system failed completely. Many elderly and infirm residents did not hear warnings from loudspeakers, radios, or televisions. Fewer than 33% of those over 70 used mobile phones, so their access to the mobile alerts issued by the Area Mail Disaster Information System was limited. Even if they were aware of the danger, disabled and older residents needed assistance to leave low-lying areas and evacuate to higher ground. One scholar underscored that victims "who were over the age of 60 accounted for 64% of all male and 68% of all female casualties." The mortality rate of disabled and infirm people was roughly 2.5 times greater than that of other residents.
Many who did immediately flee to higher ground remained in danger. The earthquake thrust the ocean floor 16 m (52 feet) upward. All that energy, in the form of multiple tsunami, propagated from the epicenter, reaching the coastal cities of Tohoku roughly 40 minutes later. Beginning around 3:15 p.m., the tsunami overran or destroyed almost all of the seawalls and concrete barriers that were supposed to hold back the water from downtown districts in Tohoku. When they came ashore, these tsunami were not clear: they were black waves. Their dark, often oil-like color came from the material that they swept up as they smashed into the coast, pulling up homes, cars, electrical poles, trees, and everything in their way. The tsunami were higher than 20 m (65 feet) in many places at landfall, and they traveled as far as 10 km (6 miles) inland up riverbeds and water channels. As a result, even towns and cities not directly on the coast faced the danger of inundation. Buildings and homes shuddered, swayed, and then broke free of their foundations, crunching loudly as plaster and wood gave way to the water, which pulled them into whirlpools and ground them together.
Towns with high seawalls, such as Iwanuma (which had a wall 7.5 m, or 24 feet, tall), Taro (12 m, or 39 feet) and Miyako (10 m, or 32 feet), saw the black waves pick up massive concrete blocks from the seawalls and smash them into buildings. Kamaishi's 10 m walls, built at a cost of more than $1.6 billion, made the Guinness Book of Records for their size, but were similarly destroyed by the waves and then swept into the downtown area. At Shiogama Port, the sea breached the seawall easily, pouring over the barrier as if it were a child's blocks. Expensive coastal infrastructure did little to stop the destruction as houses were lifted from concrete slabs in coastal towns such as Rikuzentakata and Onagawa. In Kesennuma, the downtown was flooded in seconds as 30-meter-long boats were yanked free of their anchors and hurled into structures.
Seawalls, berms, and other defensive physical infrastructure weren't the only facilities toppled by the power of the tsunami. The Onagawa hospital — located at the top of a hill overlooking the downtown area — had its first floor flooded; many patients, medical personnel, and residents who had fled there seeking shelter drowned. Onagawa's hospital tragedy was not unique. In the three-story Ogatsu Municipal Hospital in Ishinomaki, all but 6 of the 40 patients and 24 doctors and nurses died. The disaster prevention manual written for the hospital assumed that tsunami would not reach more than 6 m (19 feet) above sea level. As a result, hospital staff believed the black waves would not reach the top floor of the hospital and painstakingly moved patients there by hand to wait out the rising floods. When the water broke through the windows of the third-floor patient rooms, staff tried to save patients in the chaos, but to no avail.
Those who fled to designated evacuation sites — areas the government had set up for residents fleeing tsunami and other disasters — were not necessarily safe. Many evacuation sites were susceptible to both tsunami and quake. In fact, only 60% of them remained undamaged after the triple disasters. Scores of emergency shelters, fire stations, and public schools across the region that served as priority tsunami evacuation sites were washed away. The tsunami inundated more than 100 evacuation sites, turning safe havens into traps for those fleeing the waves.
Yet neither evacuating nor staying in place guaranteed survival. Some who tried to flee in their cars found themselves carried swiftly down flooded streets and buffeted by debris; others became trapped inside houses or on the roofs of homes and buildings. The official death toll from the National Police Agency (Keisatsu cho) stands at 15,895, with 2,539 people remaining missing, for a total of 18,434 lives taken. The tsunami destroyed 129,423 buildings and inundated 300,561 km (some 116,000 square miles) of land with salt water and debris. Some 250,000 people lost their homes to damage from the tsunami and the earthquake. The tsunami created 22 million tons of rubble — the equivalent of 20 years of municipal waste from cities across Japan — in an afternoon. Despite preparation, strong building codes, and miles of concrete along Tohoku's shores, the events of March 11 showed how vulnerable even Japan remained to disaster.
At the moment the earthquake struck, ground sensors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex run by TEPCO in Fukushima Prefecture recognized the seismic activity. Instruments triggered an automatic emergency shutdown of the nuclear reactors, known in the industry as a SCRAM. Of the six reactors at the complex, three had been operating before the earthquake while the other three had been shut down for standard maintenance. To ensure the cooling of operating reactors 1, 2, and 3, which were still generating heat despite being turned off, pumps circulated water through the complex to transfer heat outside. Engineers built the pumps to operate for several days in a crisis to reduce the temperature in the reactors and prevent a meltdown. When the power flowing into the plant failed because of the earthquake, 13 backup emergency diesel generators kicked in to push water through the reactor cores. Large packs of batteries stood ready to help move water should the generators run out of fuel.
The existing layers of protection at the plant, had they been installed and operated properly, might have been enough to stop the tragedy that followed. While the quake and waves damaged some equipment at the plant, the nuclear meltdowns that followed were not inevitable. A lack of foresight, poor risk evaluation, and faulty disaster management choices by TEPCO officials resulted in a large-scale nuclear catastrophe. Government regulators, too, bear responsibility for this manmade disaster, as no emergency response manuals provided guidance for a compound crisis of this magnitude. Nor did civil servants push utilities to upgrade safety in the years before the 3/11 events.
At 3:37 p.m. on March 11, after a series of smaller waves arrived, a 13 m (42-foot) tsunami overtopped the 5.5 m (18foot) seawalls at Fukushima Dai-ichi and flooded the entire site, which sat at sea level right next to the ocean. Decades before, TEPCO had worked with central government bureaucrats to site the facility on the coast because the area was sparsely populated and had few civil society organizations that could organize opposition to the plant. TEPCO was among the first energy firms in the nation to build a commercial nuclear power plant, and others — including Chubu, Hokuriku, and Kansai — followed suit, placing their facilities along the coast where population density and potential antinuclear sentiment were low.
Engineers had built small-scale seawalls between Fukushima Dai-ichi and the ocean, recognizing that a large wave could disrupt operations. But they placed the machinery that could prevent a meltdown in a vulnerable location because of the engineering culture where the reactors were designed: the United States. In the late 1960s, TEPCO engineers located the backup cooling mechanisms at Fukushima Dai-ichi based on the kind of disaster a North American plant was most likely to face: tornadoes. As a result, the diesel generators sat on the first floor of the seaside building and the batteries in the basement. The waters flooded and destroyed these secondary systems that could have prevented the cores from overheating.
With power out, and with active backup systems damaged by inundation, a third line of defense remained. Passive cooling mechanisms known as isolation condensers at reactor 1 and throughout the Fukushima Dai-ichi site could have continued to cool the reactors even without power. Unfortunately, TEPCO personnel had shut them off just before the plant lost electricity. Without indicator lights to confirm their status, engineers in the control room mistakenly believed that the devices were still working as temperatures rose for several hours, losing a chance to slow or halt the progressing meltdown in reactor 1.
At this point, water was no longer circulating through the reactors to cover the fuel rods, and because active and passive backup systems were offline, the temperature inside the reactors began to surge upward. The plant experienced what engineers call "total station blackout" without any source of power to operate pumps or sensors. Because TEPCO engineers never thought this could happen, there was no manual or protocol for dealing with the situation. The plant operators struggled to reduce the massive heat buildup in the reactors without full sensor readings, external power, or clear communication channels to one another or the outside.
Further, TEPCO engineers lacked training and experience to effectively manage such a complex and novel scenario. They did not recognize that the weak puffs of steam coming from the "pig snouts" of the isolation condensers indicated that they were not working. Staff at Fukushima Dai-ichi had never practiced pumping water into the reactor cores using external means such as fire trucks, and they had not set up the internal pipes to deliver water into the reactors efficiently. Efforts to open safety release valves to vent pressure and radioactivity and to pump water into the reactors from fire trucks brought in to assist early in the morning on March 12 had little effect. Despite these inadequate preparations for emergencies, a lack of training, and poor choices, TEPCO later defended its personnel, arguing that they had made no errors in their responses during the crisis.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Tables and Illustrations Preface Chapter 1: Introduction: The Story of Three Disasters Chapter 2: Individual Level: Neighbors Saving Lives Chapter 3: Village, Town, and City Level: Vertical Ties Bringing Resources Chapter 4: Prefectural Level: Networks Making a Difference Chapter 5: National Level: Governance Challenged Chapter 6: International Level: How Institutions Save Lives Chapter 7: Conclusions and Recommendations: Building Trust and Tying Us Together
Appendix 1: Interviewees and Surveyed Residents Appendix 2: Statistical Tables Notes Sources Index