CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®.
Previous generations everywhere told us so, not just once, but five, 50, even 500 times. They reported on and recorded stories of the tsunamis, the earthquakes, the pyroclastic avalanches that swallowed villages and villagers whole.
Even without our ancestors, Mother Nature has left ample traces of her past. Warning us to get out of the way, hers were the ultimate lessons in safety and prevention ? if only we'd listened.
Some of us did, of course, like the dozen or so households in the Japanese hamlet of Aneyoshi, part of the city of Miyako in Iwate Prefecture, which was pummeled by the tsunami generated by the massive 9.0 Tohuku earthquake offshore on March 11.
Those who took heed built their homes, according to a report published in April by the Associated Press, far above a large stone tablet on the side of a road.
The tablet, marked with an ominous inscription, reads: "High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point."
Another, located in the city of Kesennuma, which was devastated by the March 11 tidal wave, read: "Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables."
They are among hundred
s of tablets dotting the Japanese coastline. Some of the markers, in effect crude but effective safety and prevention mechanisms to guide future generations, have stood for centuries.
The tablets provided the simplest of early warning systems, built long before the age of software, computer models, reinforced concrete sea walls, and the network of Pacific Ocean deep-sea warning buoys linked to satellites.
Thousands of other residents, of course, ignored the engraved warnings and many paid a heavy price as the debris-laden black tide from the tsunami washed ashore, destroying homes, warehouses, factories, harbors and even lifting fishing boats and dragging them inland hundreds of yards. More than 27,000 people died from the March earthquake and subsequent tsunami, according to Japanese government estimates.
"People had this crucial knowledge, but they were busy with their lives and jobs, and many forgot," tablet scholar Yotaru Hatamura told the Associated Press.
The tablets weren't the only reminder of the power of the tsunami, whose waves crested at an estimated 130 feet and reached six miles inland. Previous generations called one of the towns "Octopus Grounds," a reference to the sea life that washed up on shore.
Locals even named temples after the powerful waves, said Fumihiko Inamura, a professor of disaster planning at Tohoku University in Sendai. So long as you knew where to look, and as long as you heeded the advice, you were safe.
Heeding safety and prevention advice, however, isn't foregone. Not for our generation, nor for previous generations.
"It takes about three generations for people to forget," Inamura said, speaking to Associated Press writer Jay Alabaster. "Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it on to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades."
Bharat Kannan, a Tokyo-based director for Aon Risk Solutions, said the Japanese government has divided the nation into 12 earthquake zones, with zones six and eight being the most earthquake prone.
Most of the damage from the Tohoku quake occurred in zones three and four. "While I know there's plenty of modeling around quake I find it ludicrous that they couldn't model for the tsunami," Kannan said.
Kannan said he's heard of the tsunami tablets, and even the more recent tragic story of one farmer in his 50s who'd lost everything and left a suicide note in chalk on his barn wall. "It's eerie, it really is eerie stuff," Kannan said in a June telephone interview with Risk & Insurance® from Tokyo.
Peter Willse, director of research for XL Global Asset Protection Services, said that in many cases, we've learned our lesson and we've been able to engineer some of the risk from the dangers.
Sea walls often help protect residents from a tidal surge, barriers high on mountain tops help limit the risk of avalanches, dams are an ingenious answer to flood control. "Do we get surprised? Yes. Do we learn? Yes," Willse said. "But just because we've had a 9.0 earthquake, are we not going to rebuild? No, humans are not like that."
Yet, there the evidence lies.
Near the mouth of the Columbia River, which empties into the Pacific between Oregon and Washington, geologists and other experts point to estuaries dotting the majestic Washington State coast line.
The estuaries, according to published interviews with Dr. Brian F. Atwater of the United States Geological Survey, are littered with sunken marshes and thousands of stumps, the remains of spruce trees that died as a result of tidal flats.
The flats were created when salt water and sand rushed in with the drop in land elevation in the wake of the Cascadia earthquake, a temblor of between 8.7 and 9.2 magnitude, which struck Jan. 26, 1700.
Incongruence with immediate surroundings ? uneven rock formations, sudden tree-line changes, boulder deposits on flat, arid plains ? are all signs that an area underwent major cataclysms, according to geologists.
Even when more recent and easier-to-spot clues in theory provide us with ample warning, evidence often goes unheeded, either because of ignorance, greed or the perceived lack of alternatives.
In New Orleans, builders erect homes and businesses below sea level. In Miami, high rises tower over the white-sand beaches in the path of hurricanes. In the Los Angeles basin, more than 20 million people have decided to build their lives atop fragile fault lines.
In the end, people make decisions about the risks they are willing to live with and the rewards they reap for taking those risks. What they give up in safety and prevention, they get back in income and quality of life.
Japanese villagers living at sea level have access to richer fishing grounds and better economic conditions, even if it means risking tsunami once every 30, 50 or even 100 years.
Farmers along the Mississippi River exploit the rich flood plains at the risk of a losing a crop every five or seven years. Media professionals and textile importers in Los Angeles would rather stay put, and take advantage of Southern California's thriving markets than pick up stakes and move four or five hours north or east.
Logging companies and tourism businesses in the shadows of Cascade Range volcanoes know that one day an eruption may send trillions of cubic feet of rock, ash, ice and water down its slopes into the river valleys below. Still, the lower slopes of Mount Rainier and Mount Hood beckon.
Gary S. Lynch, global leader for brokerage Marsh's supply chain practice and author of "At Your Own Risk: How the Risk-Conscious Culture Meets the Challenge of Business Change," said we make decisions even with tremendous risk, because "at the end of the day, there is money to be made."
A tsunami generated by a 9.0 earthquake, or the pyroclastic flows of an explosion on the order of Mount St. Helens in 1980 are so infrequent, however, that there is a tendency to downplay the risk, let safety and prevention slide.
"The frequency of the occurrence is sufficiently low to have people think it's no longer an issue," said Ruud H. Bosman, vice chairman of FM Global. Bosman spent three days traveling in Japan in June meeting with clients.
Indeed, the last time a tsunami hit Japan with any significant loss of life was in 1946, when 1,997 people died in Nankaido, according to statistics kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A 1933 tsunami in Sanriku claimed the lives of 3,000 people, and a tsunami 10 years before that in Tokaido claimed the lives of 2,144 people.
For any sign of previous tsunamis in Japan with significant loss of life, you have to go back to the 19th century, when a massive wave struck Sanriku in 1896 and took the lives of more than 26,000 people.
The greater the ability to transfer the risk, the more tempting it is to lower the safety and prevention threshold.
In many cases, the approach to safety and prevention, at least in the United States, is suboptimal, said Laurie Johnson, senior science adviser to Lexington Insurance Co. and Chartis.
"One of the most optimal risk management approaches is risk avoidance but it's often politically and financially difficult to do so. So instead we look to other options such as risk mitigation via engineering, and risk transfer via insurance.
Yes, wholesalers could build warehouses atop a fault line and protect their inventory with walls four feet thick, but the cost of such a fortress would likely mean higher prices for customers.
The issue isn't whether we can protect ourselves by living in a physical or spiritual Fort Knox on the one hand, or whether we can get away with the lowest-cost investments in safety and prevention on the other.
The issue is how to best strike the balance, even if that means coming perilously close to choosing value over life despite the wisdom of Japanese tables urging us to choose life over value.
August 1, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications