Japan lessons

For more information on disaster preparedness, visit the California Emergency Management Agency’s website.
Google has made donating to the Japanese Red Cross easy and secure here. Another good place to donate is Habitat for Humanity International here.

The scale of devastation that has roiled Japan these past weeks is beyond measure; our hearts go out to the victims of the country’s compounding disasters. As we watch it all unfold, an ocean’s length away from the ruin, it seems human nature to wonder: Might we someday be victims ourselves to such a disaster?

Well, it’s only a matter of time.

Sacramento was second on the list of American cities—right behind New Orleans—in line for a disastrous flood. Care to guess what our odds are now? And even though we tend to think of the Bay Area and Southern California as “Earthquake Central,” Sacramento is also in a very seismically active area.

When it comes to disaster, our turn is coming.

Earthquake readiness: Japan is world-renowned as the home of seismic safety-conscious design and building. But even this didn’t do much but minimize damage, given the size of the earthquake. California hospitals have until 2013—or 2015, in some cases—to meet seismic standards. Caltrans has an extensive program to retrofit bridges and elevate highways, but suffers from budgeting difficulties. And it’s important to remember that major—and devastating—casualties were suffered at elementary schools during China’s 2008 Sichuan quake.

The lesson for California is simple: Failure to allocate funds to seismic retrofits and redesigns is nothing short of penny-wise and pound foolish. Earthquakes are common, and a big one is inevitable.

Nuclear-power safeguards: It’s no surprise to find the nuclear-power industry under much-increased scrutiny following last week’s events. So it should be. A new report by a well-known nuclear watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, accused the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission of allowing utilities that operate plants in America to “ignore, or delay repairs … that could escalate into something more serious.” The report examined 14 “near miss” instances in 2010 where serious problems set off special inspections by federal regulators at nuclear facilities. Two of the instances involved “compromises in plant security.” A re-doubling of safety precautions at nuclear-power facilities in California and across the country is certainly now in order.

Disaster drills: Fire, police, first responders and emergency-trauma personnel participate in disaster-preparedness exercises. Unfortunately, most of the rest of us don’t. Just as businesses and offices must conduct fire drills, so, too, should earthquake drills be part of the routine. Anyone who has worked in the emergency-response field knows that it’s only by frequent drills that responses become automatic. Including incentives for business to drill their employees on responses to earthquakes, floods and fires—all likely scenarios in Sacramento—increases the safety quotient.

Natural disasters happen. Reasonable responses to disaster are much less frequent. As we saw in the heartbreakingly slow response to the devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, even when a risk is well-known, rapid and effective response isn’t guaranteed. In Sacramento, we have the opportunity to learn from others’ disasters, and work together to create a disaster response that is, in fact, world-class.