Japan, the country that gave the world the word tsunami, has suffered tremendously at the hands of Mother Nature, first with an earthquake that measured 8.9, and then followed by a tsunami that contained 23 foot waves, and devastated much of the northeast part of the country. If that weren’t enough to contend with, officials are now battling the threat of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear plants. The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami keeps climbing, as the last reports showed around 10,000 persons feared dead; thousands more are missing. Hundreds of thousands of persons in Japan are struggling to find food and water.
This has been like watching a bad horror movie, only it is real. The U.S. Government, private aid groups, and American business corporations were all being mobilized Saturday to support rescue and recovery efforts in Japan. The U.S. Military assistance operation, “Operation Tomodachi”, meaning “friendship”, was the name chosen by the Japanese. USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which includes a destroyer, cruiser, and combat support ship is headed to the east coast of Honshu to serve as a platform for refueling Japanese military and other helicopters involved in rescue and recovery.
In regard to Japan’s nuclear problems – a meltdown means there has been a serious collapse of a power plant’s systems and its ability to manage temperatures. A complete meltdown would release uranium and dangerous byproducts into the environment that pose serious health problems. When there is a loss of power and damage to generators, cooling systems crucial to cool down nuclear fuel rods become crippled and unable to perform their function. On Saturday, safety officials from Japan told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the release of radioactive material so far has been small; however, Japanese authorities have evacuated more than 180,000 residents within a 12-mile radius, and are distributing iodine pills to residents around the power plants involved. Potassium iodide, in concentrated form, can help reduce the dose of radiation to the thyroid and thus the risk of cancer. The Nuclear Regulatory Committee in the U.S. recommends that persons living within 10-mile emergency planning radius of nuclear plants be given the same dosage of concentrated potassium iodide.
Although this is largest earthquake Japan has experienced, and the 5th largest in the world since 1900, Japan has routinely conducted earthquake and tsunami drills and probably is better prepared for this type of disaster than any other country. Inside modern Japanese buildings are extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers, making them the sturdiest in the world. Building codes have long been much more stringent on specific matters like how much a building may sway during an earthquake. Hopefully, lives were saved because of this planning. Time will tell.
The tsunami from Japan sent strong waves thousands of miles away. Hawaii is thankful that there was no loss of life or injuries from the tsunami, but several hotels experienced waves pushed into their lobbies on the Big Island, and also there was damage to about 60 homes. Further away, in Crescent City, California, a community that depends on the fishing industry, the tsunami caused approximately $17.1 million dollars of damage to the harbor and vessels, and about $4 million to private boats. One young man from a community about 20 miles south of Crescent City, remains missing, when he was washed away by the waves.
Aftershocks continue in Japan, making rescue and recovery even more difficult. Many of these aftershocks measure 5 or greater. Keep the citizens of Japan in your thoughts and prayers, as well as the brave people who always show up in times of crisis – volunteers from around the world that search, treat the injured, feed the hungry, and serve in ways we can’t begin to imagine. Disasters always bring friends from afar, countries pulling together to help their fellow human beings.
Sources: NY Times, AP, Chicago Tribune, Ft Worth Star-Telegram