Silver Lining: Effective Hazard Mitigation Lessens Damage from Japanese Quake

March 11th, 2011

“The headline you won’t be reading: ‘Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes’. But it’s the truth.”

This was written by Twitter user Dave Ewing in response to the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that shook Japan on Friday.  While the aftermath is devastating, and the final death toll uncertain, there is an element of truth to that statement.  Japan’s stringent building regulations are an excellent example of effective hazard mitigation.

Japan is not a stranger to tsunamis or earthquakes.  Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire", an area of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur.

Japan’s worst previous quake occurred in 1923 in Kanto, where an 8.3 magnitude quake killed 143,000 people, according to the United States Geological Survey.  In later decades, Japan created strict building codes designed to minimize earthquake damage and loss of life.  Still, many lessons were learned after a 6.8 magnitude quake struck Kobe city in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people.  As several newspapers such as the Telegraph and the New York Times have reported, Japan’s stringent building regulations makes it perhaps one of the most prepared nations for earthquakes and tsunamis.  These regulations ensure that skyscrapers sway in during a quake, but don’t collapse.  Buildings are also protected from earthquakes with the aid of deep foundation and massive shock absorbers that lessen seismic energy. Another building method allows the base of a building to move semi-independently to its superstructure, reducing the shaking caused by an earthquake.   For tsunami protection, Japan has also built concrete seawalls in many communities, some as high as 40 feet.  There are even coastal towns that have set up networks of sensors that can automatically close floodgates when an earthquake strikes to prevent waves from surging up rivers. Some ports are also equipped with raised platforms.

Good engineering and strict building code regulations, along with excellent preparedness education such as daily evacuation and earthquake drills, may have prevented an even bigger tragedy from occurring.  While undeniably the costs of such regulations and engineering are high, it does go a long way to protect the public and ensure its safety.

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