Kit Miyamoto was riding on a train in Tokyo on Friday when a massive earthquake struck off the Japanese coast. Although the earthquake's epicenter was hundreds of miles away, the train came to an immediate halt.
Rather than panicking, Miyamoto recognized that the sudden stop represented an attempt to protect against loss of life. "As soon as the train feels an earthquake of any magnitude, it stops so you will not get derailed," Miyamoto says. "This is the Japanese alarm system at its best."
Because of a long history of frequent, sizable earthquakes, Japan was relatively well-prepared for the latest quake.
Japan could not protect its entire coastline against tsunami with its system of seawalls. And with sizable aftershocks still occurring, the final death toll will not be known for some time. But it will be a fraction of the 230,000 deaths seen in Haiti following last year's earthquake.
That's in spite of the fact that the Port-au-Prince earthquake was far smaller in magnitude than Friday's, which was 8.9 — one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded.
"The biggest difference between a place like Haiti and Japan is that in Japan, they experience earthquakes frequently and they build the habits of a high level of earthquake technology into their engineering," says Miyamoto, who is president of a structural engineering firm based in California.
"They get a magnitude earthquake of 7 or 8 every decade, so naturally they get good at it," he says.
The Rich Pay; The Poor Die
Income inequality rarely matters so much as it does when it comes to surviving earthquakes. Japan is a wealthy nation that can afford to build structures capable of standing up to sustained shaking. But places like Haiti, which was already one of the world's poorest nations before its devastating earthquake struck, can't.
Japan faces enormous recovery and rebuilding costs, but it can afford to pay them, says Roger Bilham, a University of Colorado geologist. "Basically, when you have an earthquake in developing countries, they die," he says. "In the developed countries, they pay."
Expecting To Be Saved
Mary Lou Zoback, an earthquake risk consultant in California, worries that preparedness is not a strong enough part of American culture — for disasters of any kind.
Retrofitting a home to be better able to withstand an earthquake would probably cost people less money than granite countertops for the kitchen, she says. Yet many people choose aesthetics over safety.
"The federal government has built an expectation — don't worry, someone is going to be there to bail you out," says Zoback, who currently sits on a National Academy of Sciences panel that studies disaster resilience. "Unfortunately, that kind of perspective actually prevents us from becoming as prepared and as self-reliant as we should be."
Building standards are always going to be high enough in the United States to prevent Haiti-style devastation, says James M. Wilkinson Jr., executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium.
But he agrees with Zoback that changing people's mindsets is nearly as important as insisting on stringent building codes.
"At a certain level, you have to be prepared to take care of yourself," Wilkinson says. "The federal government or the state emergency management department can't be everywhere instantly, especially with the bigger disasters that impact a bigger area."
— Alan Greenblatt
In poor countries, Bilham says, badly constructed houses are "an unrecognized weapon of mass destruction."
Corruption And Collapse
The type of brittle, poorly mixed concrete often used in Haiti was a major factor in the enormous death toll there last year, with thousands of buildings damaged. According to Bilham, Haiti's earthquake caused more than twice as many deaths as any previous 7.0 earthquake.
Building failures also accounted for the bulk of the nearly 90,000 deaths caused by an 8.0 earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan, China. That earthquake led to loud complaints about corruption and shoddy materials used in school construction.
Bilham co-authored a study published in Nature in January that found 83 percent of quake deaths from building collapse over the past 30 years happened in countries that were especially corrupt.
Builders sometimes find it cheaper to pay bribes than build according to code.
"In many parts of the world, you can have great plans," says Mary Lou Zoback, an earthquake risk consultant in California, "but construction is expensive and you can cut corners."
The Scale Of Disaster
That can lead to enormous death tolls. Earthquakes aren't getting bigger or more frequent, says Raymond Pestrong, a San Francisco State University geologist, but they are occurring in more crowded places.
Cities such as Tehran, Iran; Istanbul; Caracas, Venezuela; and Manila, the Philippines are vulnerable to quakes that could leave hundreds of thousands dead, if their regions and structures don't become better prepared. One assessment done last year for the Filipino government found that a quarter of the structures in urban areas could crumble in the event of an earthquake.
"The reason that we hear so much more about natural disasters today is that people are flocking into large cities more," Pestrong says. "Lots of the large cities are in very vulnerable areas. When an event happens, it affects more people."
Memories Grow Short
A country as poor as Haiti isn't going to put its money into seismic retrofitting, Pestrong says. But even communities in wealthier nations can easily become complacent.
Most of the deaths in last month's earthquake in New Zealand occurred because of the collapse of buildings constructed prior to that country's 1976 adoption of a strict seismic building code. But those buildings had been deemed safe following an earthquake last September. Prime Minister John Key has promised an investigation.
This fall will mark the 200th anniversary of a series of three earthquakes that struck between Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis that are believed to have been far stronger than the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Yet because San Francisco has experienced quakes frequently over the past century, it has remained far more vigilant than builders in the mid-South.
Voters in San Francisco frequently approve bond measures to pay for retrofitting of essential infrastructure such as its water and subway systems. Other areas grow lax because earthquakes are so infrequent.
Oregon officials, for instance, organized a large-scale earthquake drill on Jan. 26 — the 311th anniversary of a Pacific Northwest earthquake that was roughly the size of Japan's on Friday.
But with no such disaster in living memory, the drill was a rare example of the area preparing itself. The first seismic building codes didn't go into effect in Oregon until after the wake-up call of a 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif. Retrofitting since has been piecemeal and slow.
"The Northwest coast of the U.S., that's where the big problem is, if you ask me," says Pedro Silva, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at George Washington University. "The potential is there for a mega-earthquake of the magnitude we saw in Japan. You would be unlikely to see many buildings withstand it."
A Culture Of Preparedness
Japanese high-rises are built to sway almost like trees, which is why they're able to withstand sustained and intense shaking. Similarly, Chile — which came out of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake last year with a death toll well under 1,000 — has had success adding concrete walls as a bracing element.
But surviving earthquakes is more than a matter of building quality and design. A place like Japan seeks to instill in its citizens a sense of how crucial it is to prepare.
Haiti may not see another sizable quake for 200 years. But many other locales know they'll get hit again. The difference between death tolls of 1,000 or 100,000 may come down to a shared belief that another earthquake will hit within their lifetimes, so it's worth investing the resources necessary to survive it.
"In Japan, they have a civilization of earthquake preparedness," says Silva, who has visited the country three times. "What really amazed me was that even at the kindergarten level, they receive earthquake briefings continuously. It's really in their culture."