Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

From Tokyo, Pondering Disaster

    I've been talking to people about the next big disaster in Tokyo, which has been planned in advance. The Tokai Earthquake is a geological possibility and a bureaucratic fact. It already has a name. It is supposed to occur on a section of a tectonic plate boundary that hasn't broken in 151 years. The government has already calculated the death toll and the financial losses. There is an underlying premise that earthquakes happen in predictable patterns. No one has yet taken the bold step of setting a firm date.

    Back at the hotel I look at the images from Katrina, and a different thought prevails. It's that disasters have a highly random quality. They involve the unexpected, and don't occur on human timetables. In the old days in Miami we always heard about the great threat of storm surge in a hurricane, an idea driven by the lethality of Camille in 1969. But Hurricane Andrew did its great damage with wind, systematically peeling away the roofs of inadequately constructed homes. Then with Hurricane Floyd, neither surge nor wind delivered much of a punch. It literally blew over without any major calamity. What we didn't appreciate was that there was no place to put all the rainwater, and two days after the storm passed, people were drowning in glorious weather. The news coverage of Katrina focused on the possibility of New Orleans receiving a direct hit, and there was great relief when the storm veered a bit to the east. But it's clear the disaster is steadily unfolding in new ways, including the flooding from the break in the levee. The only safe bet with Nature is that it won't abide by human plans.

By Joel Achenbach  |  August 30, 2005; 4:32 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Shrines and Skyscrapers
Next: Koizumi and his 'assassins'


Joel, would it be bad manners to suggest that the Japanese government office workers start a pool on the date of the earthquake?

Note: to any Wall Street traders reading this. You didn't read this here.


Posted by: bc | August 30, 2005 4:44 PM | Report abuse

i'm starting to think the world is getting a little miffed with us humans and is doing something about it! the tragedy in new orleans is mind boggling!

Posted by: mo | August 30, 2005 4:46 PM | Report abuse

can you say "Katrina and the Waves".

I should be taken out back and...

Posted by: omnibad | August 30, 2005 5:04 PM | Report abuse

and GOD's inoccent creaures suffer as well. It's not fair.

Posted by: turtle | August 30, 2005 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Yes so strange that the storm veered by just a bit to miss a direct hit on New Orleans -- but still such a hard dictum for these people. Your home flooded for months and weeks or your home and belongings blown to the four winds. What can one say except thankfully I'm spared for now and my belongings wouldn't matter much in a scenario like this. How we cling to that china set or curio from grandmother and yet the most fragile thing is our life and our sanity! If people have any ideas how ordinary techo peasants can help directly -- beyond the financial donation which is definitely a must --in the DC area please post here. Also -- bitter comment -- the Bush Administration has so so overcommitted our resources in this country that even helping our own will require sacrifice out of our own personal pocket reaching down and getting that last penny to help these poor people who really will need it because the rich people can fly away or take a $37000 limo to Chicago and then rejoice!!!

Posted by: CelticInca | August 30, 2005 5:10 PM | Report abuse


That was really in bad taste, almost any of us would agree. Please refrain. Thanks, friend.

Posted by: omnigasm | August 30, 2005 5:12 PM | Report abuse


That was really in bad taste, almost any of us would agree. Please refrain. Thanks, friend.

Posted by: omnigasm | August 30, 2005 5:13 PM | Report abuse

omnibad - not your best moment but we'll forgive you! i don't think many of those homes are salvagable - i mean, it's not like ordinary water flooded the house - wasn't it raw sewage and such? besides, i imagine it must be cost prohibitive to have those ppl come that "dry" out floods... looking at the news reports - a lot of the homes hit the hardest appear to be in low-income areas... i heard it is going to take a month to get electricity back to some of the places... and i read an article about a woman who's whole apart was gone - just gone! absolutely nothing left! that must be just horrific!

Posted by: mo | August 30, 2005 5:18 PM | Report abuse

"It took man a long, long time to tumble to the fact that he was meant for greater things than he could achieve living like a lion or a wombat. For some three million years he was just part of the anarchy, was just one more creature rolling around in the slime . . . . It was only about ten thousand years ago that he finally realized that his place was not in the slime. He had to lift himself out of the slime and take this place in hand and straighten it out . . . But . . . the world defied him. What man built up, the wind and rain tore down. The fields he cleared for his crops and his villages, the jungle fought to reclaim. The seeds he sowed, the birds snatched away. The shoots he nurtured, the insects nibbled. The harvest he stored, the mice plundered. The animals he bred and fed, the wolves and foxes stole away. The mountains, the rivers, and the oceans stood in their places and would not make way for him. The earthquake, the flood, the hurricane, the blizzard, and the drought would not disappear at his command . . . In order to make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it . . . According to [our] mythology, that is what he was *born* to do."

-- From "Ishmael," by Daniel Quinn

Posted by: Dreamer | August 30, 2005 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Any reference to Katrina and the Waves or whistling "Walking on Sunshine" is in bad taste, but everyone is thinking it. Don't deny you didn't.

Wonkette even used it in a blogpost title.

Posted by: yellojkt | August 30, 2005 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I really feel for those affected by this. On the tv last night a lady with Seattles local Red Cross asked that people send money not just because its the most portable easiest thing to do, BUT because goods purchased with it will be purchased as much as possible in the affected area, thereby restarting the local ecomnomies.

The ongoing disaster makes me feel very small in the grand scheme of things.

Posted by: dr | August 30, 2005 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Earthquake, tsunami,
famine, hurricane, and flood.
Hello Kitty lives.

Posted by: Videlicet | August 30, 2005 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Joel: Thanks for a second, and very thoughtful, Kit. Now, get out there and drink some saki. We expect a full report in the morning.

Posted by: CowTown | August 30, 2005 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Our morning or his?

Posted by: dr | August 30, 2005 7:19 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: sake to me | August 30, 2005 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Saki in honor of Bourbon Street seems appropriate.

I don't know of any city that's suffered fire like Tokyo. Edo largely burned to the ground shortly after the first Tokugawa shoguns built it (including the incredible castle, which was full of gunpowder, and bullion, which melted. The shogun somehow survived but not 100,000 edoites). Afterward, the life expectancy of an Edo/Tokyo building was maybe 20 years. The 1923 earthquake fires terrible, but modest compared to 1945. Hayao Miyazaki, the animator (Howl's Moving Castle) is a pessimist about Tokyo. It's doomed. Of course Miami and Seattle may be, too.

Posted by: Dave | August 30, 2005 9:06 PM | Report abuse

While the Kaboddle careens into frivolity today, I'm glad you, Joel, are tackling a tragedy of immense proportion unfolding in America. As a quiet observer this afternoon, I am so surprised that no one mentioned Hurricane Katrina in their posts to "Shrines and Skyscrapers."

Your best thoughts this evening here--and possibly this morning in Japan--are: "It's that disasters have a highly random quality. They involve the unexpected, and don't occur on human timetables."

I have seen a hurricane as bad as Katrina and it was a graphic, an illustration. When we had first moved to Texas in '94, I felt the deep pangs of homesickness. I needed the one thing that could reassure me--and that was art. The local framing shop that I picked to sit and look through art books had a framed, oversized print on its wall of the hurricane that devastated Galveston about a century ago. The artist captured the devastation and the loss of life in pen and ink. Today we have the television camera and the satellite truck.

Since we've been in San Antonio, the city has experienced two 100-years floods in five years. I was lucky to be out of state from California when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, as well as the massive fire in the Oakland hills. My husband remembers running as a child to the storm cellar in Missouri when tornadoes bore down on his aunt and uncle's country home.

My most vivid memory of diasaster involved being at South Lake Tahoe when a major smowstorm hit and knocked out power to the Tahoe Basin. There was no hot coffee, no hot shower, nor warm buildings, nor hot meals. After being without power for almost 48 hours, my housemate came home to find me wrapped up, cocoon-like on the couch in all the blankets I could gather.

Gas prices have spiked 17 cents a gallon overnight at our local service station here in San Antonio. Stray dogs and cats transported from New Orleans are available here at the local Humane Society for half the normal adoption fee. Our hotels house those who have fled the hurricane's destruction, but now it appears they cannot be homeward bound for a week or better.

Thousands in Mississippi and Louisiana have no homes, have lost relatives, and face a bleak immediate future. Maslow and his hierarchy of needs come to mind.

The irony is that while you were in California, Joel, there was an earthquake in Japan. Now that you're in Japan, there's an historic, horrific hurricane here in the states. It is hard for the mind to grapple with so much destruction, suffering and loss.

The irony is not lost on me either that while Rev. Henry Loomis went to Japan in the 1870s to save Japanese souls, the atomic bomb that cousin Alfred Lee Loomis worked on helped to destroy them.

Posted by: Linda Loomis | August 30, 2005 9:15 PM | Report abuse

While death and darkness both surround,
And tempests rage with lawless power,
Of friendship's voice I hear no sound,
No comfort in this dreadful hour--
What friendships can in tempests be,
What comfort on this raging sea?

The barque, accustomed to obey,
No more the trembling pilots guide:
Alone she gropes her trackless way,
While mountains burst on either side--
This, skill and science both must fall;
And ruin is the lot of all.

Philip Freneau, 1752-1832, the last two stanzas of his poem, "Hurricane"

Posted by: Linda Loomis | August 30, 2005 10:41 PM | Report abuse

There is only time and energy for hoping and praying and helping right now, but... (you knew that the "but ..." was coming, right?)
How will we (societally) come to grips with the fact that the entire concept of New Orleans (as currently located) is an artificial construct which cannot exist indefinitely? Unless it's domed completely, and becomes the coolest underwater party spot around?
It would have been bypassed by the naturally re-routed Mississippi decades ago except for the heavy-duty earth & concrete works upstream. The (since then) artificially elevated river & nearby lake would have inundated it decades ago except for the earth & concrete works immediately surrounding. Hmmm...

Oh, what the heck! Large parts of the Netherlands have been holding out even longer, right?

Posted by: Bob S | August 31, 2005 3:27 AM | Report abuse

I hear that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a hurricane in New Orleans. I think that Joel should track down that butterfly and squash it!

Posted by: Videlicet | August 31, 2005 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Linda, I always appreciate your perspective.

I've been through blizzards and ice storms, a flood, some hurricanes and tornados, gone for up to 10 days without power up in the mountains in February, and in the mid-Atlantic in August. I've witnessed fatal accidents firsthand.

For me, the important thing wasn't to try to comprehend the tragedies at the time, but to do something about them. For those dying of obviously fatal injuries, I talked to them to let them know that they weren't alone. When the nautral disasters struck, my family pooled our resources with our neighbors and we all helped attend to any injuries, dig each other out of the snow, pumped water out of houses, helped clear the roads and properties of trees and debris, prepare meals, kept a shoulder ready to cry on, helped run electrical lines, and generally focused on tried to get things back to normal.

Including attempting to get people to start laughing again.


Posted by: bc | August 31, 2005 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Touche, bc.

Posted by: Tom fan | August 31, 2005 9:52 AM | Report abuse

The sad truth is that there will always be the next disaster. It's part of the human condition. It's a fact of life.

I've never been through a big one. Oh sure, there was a wicked, wicked ice storm that I wouldn't wish on anyone. And a Cat 3 hurricane named Alicia, but I was far enough away from it that I wasn't much put out.

Anyway, I grieve for the people in New Orleans. I heard an account this morning of people needing help being turned away from a hospital, of people wandering around with nowhere to go, and so on.

There's no shortage of sadness in this world. I just read where as many as 1,000 in Iraq may have died in what amounted to a stampede of people. They were running from what they thought was a suicide bomber.

People are dying in droves in Africa from AIDS, starvation and racial/ethnic slaughter. In many parts of the world, they are simply living the life of the oppressed.

Without laughter, bc, any sane person might go crazy.

Posted by: Bayou Self | August 31, 2005 11:12 AM | Report abuse

The radio and tv have mentioned that many of the Saints players spent the day on Monday (safely in CA) glued to their TVs watching the events of the hurricane unfold. I keep hoping that the players will donate some of their bloated salaries to those poor, poor people in their home city. Is this too much to ask?

Posted by: AJ | August 31, 2005 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I am tired of politicians trying to make hay of the Katrina disaster. Just shut up!

Posted by: ray | September 2, 2005 3:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company