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Early Learning from the Events in Japan  

Thomas Inglesby and Anita Cicero, March 30, 2011

The earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear plant crisis in Japan have brought terrible consequences and suffering for the Japanese people, and the crisis and uncertainty at the Fukushima nuclear plant continue. As Japan confronts the multiple challenges of this ongoing disaster and focuses on recovery over the months and years ahead, many lessons will emerge that will help the disaster response community in the U.S. and around the world better prepare for future catastrophes. But some things are already clear.   

People Expect the Most of Their Federal Government During Crisis    

The events in Japan make clear that one of the essential roles of government is to lead the national—and international, as needed—response to enormous catastrophes. In the Japan disaster, as in others,  such as the U.S. Gulf oil spill, many of the assets and experts needed for response are in the private sector. This is particularly the case with regard to a nuclear crisis. Even though much expertise and many resources reside outside the government, the Japanese government has been responsible for leading the containment efforts at the nuclear energy plant, describing its response efforts to the global community, communicating risks to the Japanese people, and gathering and coordinating valuable international assets and experts. This is certainly what would be expected of the U.S. government as well.

Meeting these expectations is a daunting task that requires strong leaders in the government who can marshal technical expertise and make quick, fact-based decisions in a nimble and efficient way as a crisis unfolds. Capable government leaders and technical experts are not necessarily easy to find or retain.   We need to ensure we maintain and recruit government officials who can provide this level of leadership, to ensure our government can perform as expected and as needed in a time of such crisis.  

Basic Understanding of Radiation Is Needed

The nuclear crisis in Japan has made clear that a majority of people—in Japan, the U.S., and  elsewhere in the world—have little knowledge and understanding of nuclear radiation. For most non-experts, principles of radiation are highly unfamiliar: differences among the types of radiation are not understood (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.); measurement terminology is complex(sieverts, grays, becquerels, curies, rems, etc.); dosage measurements and the implications of various dosage levels are complex and difficult to understand, as are the health implications of different types and levels of exposure. Lack of knowledge and understanding fuels fear that may be, in many cases, ungrounded in fact.

The complexities of radiation make it difficult to explain, for instance, how radiation travels, how far it travels, and the degrees of harm caused by exposure in the short- and long-term. Experts often explain risk by comparing acute, disaster-related exposure to the normal exposures of  everyday life. However, for many people, even this comparison may be relatively meaningless if they do not have baseline familiarity with the ways in which they are exposed to radiation every day and what that means. As a result, fear of the unknown may be exacerbated by the anxiety, confusion, and exhaustion that follow a catastrophic event, and made even worse when miscommunication occurs at key moments of crisis.

In the future, when nuclear or radiation-related crises occur, we will always have to contend with the complexities of radiation science, and, in the event of a crisis at a nuclear plant,  the uncertainty about actual conditions within a damaged reactor. Nonetheless, we can and should develop in advance more trusted and user-friendly sources of information about radiation that are created for the general public and members of the press, who play such a critical role in educating the public during disasters.    

Local Disaster Planning Saves Lives-We Need to Support It in the U.S. 

Japan’s earthquake preparedness efforts are among the best in the world. The capacity for Japanese buildings large and small to withstand this earthquake was stunning. While tragic numbers of people lost their lives or their homes from the tsunami, countless more would have been lost without the tsunami warning systems, educational efforts, and engineering efforts in Japan.

In the U.S., there are efforts under way to improve local community planning for a range of disasters and growing recognition that people in their own communities may make the biggest difference in outcome and recovery. Without question, the private sector, NGOs, and community-based organizations are critical to the planning and response processes.

Within the Obama administration, there has been increased momentum and recent progress in the realm of community-based disaster planning, which is supported to varying extents by FEMA, DHS, and CDC grants, as well as by state and local funds. However, the ongoing cost of these efforts is highly vulnerable when budget cuts are made in times of fiscal austerity. In fact, community engagement activities at the national and local level are chronically underfunded compared to other preparedness and response programs. The serial disasters in Japan demonstrate the value of prudent community disaster planning for saving lives. 

Communities Need Facts Before a Disaster Strikes

As the disaster in Japan unfolded, people had to make life-saving decisions on their own, particularly in response to the tsunami. There was little time to receive information from official sources, and even if there had been time, communication systems in many places were disrupted. Advance knowledge about tsunamis saved many lives in Japan that would have been lost had the disaster occurred elsewhere.

In the U.S., it has long been a tenet of disaster planning that communities vulnerable to natural disasters must be able to manage response on their own for some time before external resources and assistance can be provided by the government and other relief organizations. Successful response, therefore,  relies on community understanding of the disasters they might confront, which means that information must be provided in advance of any disaster.

For some kinds of catastrophes, there will be little or no time for public information campaigns in the immediate aftermath. This is true for tsunamis and earthquakes. It would also be true in the event of a nuclear detonation, when a great number of lives could be saved if the public understood in advance that they should seek adequate shelter to avoid radioactive fallout and stay put rather than attempting to leave and evacuate the area. Whatever the cause of a disaster, though, an informed and educated populace will be better prepared to respond, withstand, and, in many cases, survive.     

We Should Emulate the Resilience of the Japanese People 

The bravery, selflessness, and heroism with which the Japanese people have responded to this crisis is admirable. Extensive and complex evacuations were completed smoothly. Acts of community and individual generosity are commonplace and have been widely reported, as survivors continue to help each other cope and recover. And in the face of devastating loss and ongoing shortage and uncertainty, the relative calm of the survivors is and has been remarkable.

The world is witnessing a degree of societal resilience most hoped for in times of national crisis. U.S. leaders and communities should do all that they can to understand how such resilience has been developed and nurtured  and should do all they can to support efforts to build the same capacity here.