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What societies need to survive earthquakes

Japan is one of the most prepared of all societies for earthquakes, tsunami, conflagrations and other disasters. Every work unit, large or small, has an emergency response plan. Today’s Tohoku quake hit on a workday afternoon, meaning the staff in every factory and office could act as a team to quell small fires, shut the gas lines, render first aid and restore communication systems. Even in most homes, residents have a rechargeable flashlight plugged into a socket and emergency bottles of water.

Northeast Japan is better prepared than other localities because, in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995, the regional Keidanren, or federation of industrial organizations, sponsored a thorough risk-management and crisis-response study. Tohoku Keidanren staffers, who had known of my reporting on the Kobe quake as well as the one that rocked San Francisco in 1989, asked me to write an article prioritizing disaster preparations.

First on my list was a people-based communications network, such as the citizen's band radio that enabled Northern Californians to self-organize after the 1989 quake despite power blackouts. That directly led to the quick licensing of new mobile phone towers equipped with back-up batteries.

Second was independent power generation inside all major factories so that these large facilities could recharge batteries, provide lighting and pump water for their neighborhoods and, if necessary, offer shelter, sanitation and medical care. These systems must be routinely used -- at least on weekends -- so that the equipment is regularly checked and the staff stays familiar with their operation.

Third, and most important, is the ability of individuals to rally as self-sustaining communities. In Kobe, society collapsed under a sense of personal defeat. In San Francisco, by contrast, neighbors reached out as friends and opened their doors, food stocks and hearts to victims and their kin. Without compassion, each of us is very much alone indeed.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, has covered the earthquakes in San Francisco and Kobe, participated in the rescue operation immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and led the field research for an architectural report on structural design flaws that led to the tsunami death toll in Thailand. He wrote a longer version of this article for New American Media.

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