Disasterology 3: Learning to shout after the Fukushima disaster

October 7, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

On the afternoon of March 3, 2011, Japan’s public television network NHK was broadcasting a session of parliament live when warning chimes and a bulletin flashed across screens: “This is an earthquake early warning,” an announcer said. “Beware of a strong earthquake … The Tokyo studio is shaking right now.” When the picture switched to the studio, the announcer continued to speak in a calm voice. This was common practice, meant to avoid causing panic.

That changed after the 3/11 disaster, which included an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima. Now, news presenters may shout their warnings, said Takehiko Kusaba, director of of media strategy and cooperation in NHK’s news department. Shouting, he said, can save lives if it helps people evacuate quickly. The language can be uncharacteristically harsh for Japanese television, as tough as a simple, “Go away!”

The expected height of the tsunami used to be included in warnings, but that too has changed. Now presenters can use words like “huge.” A more specific forecast might encourage people to calculate how high above sea level they are, and to figure out whether they could survive the waves.

Ayumi Yanagisawa, an NHK correspondent in the earthquake zone, was reporting in a coastal area, talking to a fisherman, when the ground cracked under her feet. She continued reporting, got to higher ground and within half an hour, she said, “The whole town washed away in front of me.” The full effect of the trauma didn’t hit until about a year later, when the same cold, snowy weather as on 3/11 brought back memories of the day. “If I see a tsunami next time, I’m not sure I could continue to cover the story,” she said.

Takeshi Koizumi remembers when the lesson in shouting began. It was the afternoon of March 3 when he and ot

hers at the Japan Meteorological Agency felt the earth shake in Tokyo, more than 200 miles (300 km) away from the rupturing fault off the Japanese coast.

“It shook for a long time. It was very scary, very strong shaking,” Koizumi said. Unlike hurricanes and typh

oons, earthquakes can’t be predicted, but once the earth started to move, Koizumi and his colleagues warned of an impending tsunami with a maximum height of 10 meters. Thanks to Japan’s strong building codes, there were few casualties from the earthquake, but more than 20,000 were killed in the floods that followed. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced more than two years later.

The first tsunami warning for the area around Sendai came out three minutes after the earthquake was detected. That warning was expanded to cover the entire east coast 12 minutes and 34 seconds after the earthquake. The problem, Koizumi said, is that people stop listening after the first warning, and many didn’t hear the expanded warning’s forecast of a huge tsunami.

Koizumi said the Japanese people need to be kept aware of the risks of tsunamis, though for now, he said, “The memory of the tragedy will make them wary … but I don’t know if this will last 10 years.”


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