The March 11 Earthquake: Where Things Stand

Q1: Where do things stand in Japan?

A1: By Monday, Japanese authorities had estimated the death toll to be around 10,000, and as tsunami waters recede back into the Pacific Ocean, that number may rise even further. Japanese authorities are also reporting that approximately 350,000 people have been left homeless, and 900,000 are without electricity. The Japanese government is also facing another serious problem: the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which was severely damaged, is now in danger of potentially emitting high levels of radiation. All told, the disaster is expected to cost Japan around $180 billion. In comparison, the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the epicenter of which was closer to a major city, and which was previously the most expensive earthquake in history, resulted in damages around $115 billion.

The Japanese government is managing the disaster using a three-pronged approach: by establishing a headquarters to respond to the disaster as a whole; a headquarters to respond to nuclear power issues; and a headquarters to respond to the electricity supply situation. While search and rescue remains an immediate concern, the Japanese government and its partners are also prioritizing the distribution of water, food, and medical supplies; the reestablishment of reliable telecommunications; and ultimately, the reunification of families.

Q2: What is the U.S. contribution to relief efforts?

A2: Following the disaster, the Obama administration offered Japan full U.S. support in relief and recovery efforts. The U.S. Department of Defense is providing a number of assets. The U.S. Air Force’s Yokota Air Base was instrumental in recovering diverted aircraft in the hours immediately following the earthquake and now serves as an alternate airfield for flights that cannot land at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Two Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopters have already delivered 1,500 pounds of rice and bread to victims in the town of Shiroishi, one of the worst-hit parts of Japan, in a reported 20 air drops. U.S. Marines at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa have also been able to deploy critically needed supplies and aid to areas most in need. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is now off the coast of Japan and serving as a place for Japanese search-and-rescue helicopters to refuel. Reports suggest at least seven more ships are en route, including the USS Tortuga carrying two heavy lift MH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, and the USS Essex, an amphibious ship carrying a 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

At the request of the government of Japan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also assisting with search-and-rescue efforts. USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) has been in Japan coordinating the overall U.S. government response efforts. The 14-member team includes 4 nuclear experts. In addition, urban search-and-rescue (USAR) teams from Fairfax, Virginia, and Los Angeles, California, have been deployed. These USAR teams are composed of approximately 150 personnel and 12 canines trained to locate victims.

As with prior large-scale disasters, like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, U.S. assistance to Japan, especially relating to heavy assets, has accounted for an important share of total international aid.

Q3: What has the international response been?

A3: As of March 14, some 91 countries had made offers of assistance to the Japanese government in the wake of Friday’s earthquake. Included among them are all 14 countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as well as Japan’s strategically important neighbors, China, Russia, and Korea. At this point, international assistance to Japan is primarily in-kind with some 15 international USAR teams working in the country. The focus of search-and-rescue efforts is in the hard-hit northeastern prefecture of Miyagi. The USAR teams of 17 other countries remain on standby for deployment should the government of Japan assess that more teams are needed.

In addition, the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team arrived in Japan on March 14 to assist the Japanese government in the coordination of international USAR teams and to assist with initial damage assessments and environmental hazard analysis. Medecins sans Frontiers, Mercy Malaysia, Save the Children, Plan International, and Telecoms sans Frontiers are also reported to be in-country and operational, working with local government administrations in the northeast and with Japanese nongovernmental organizations to contribute to the emergency response. The International Federation for the Red Cross has deployed a high-level support/liaison team to assist the Japan Red Cross Society.

According to the UN Financial Tracking System, international monetary contributions are beginning to come in from donor governments and Red Crescent societies, although current numbers are still quite low at just over $2 million. With damages expected at well over $100 billion, more money is sure to pour in, particularly given Japan’s long-standing position as a global leader in humanitarian donorship. As a metric of the kinds of money that will be made available, it was reported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today that U.S. businesses had already pledged $35 million to earthquake/tsunami victims.

Q4: Does the Japanese experience offer any lessons for how we can better prepare for and respond to other large-scale disasters?

A4: With every disaster, the international community has the opportunity to develop its expertise and know-how in disaster risk management. While Japan is still very much in the midst of the crisis, it can already be noted that a capable and responsive government, at both central and prefecture levels, is key to an effective disaster relief effort. Japan’s response thus far has been commendable in spite of the acute, multifold challenges that this particular disaster presents. Not only has the government rapidly addressed search-and-rescue needs in areas accessible to emergency foot teams and helicopters, it has worked closely with the Tokyo Electric Power Company to address compromises at nuclear plants north of Tokyo, preemptively instituted rationing of gas and electric supplies for the disaster response, and injected 15 trillion into Japanese banks in an effort to stabilize the economy.

The Japan disaster also demonstrates that disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness measures are central to long-term resilience. Earthquake-resistant buildings and infrastructure in Tokyo and across northeast Japan have proven capable of withstanding the initial quake, as well as hundreds of large-scale aftershocks since Friday. One can only wonder how many thousands of lives were saved by these state-of-the-art structures and thoughtful disaster reduction planning. Although there would seem little infrastructure able to withstand a tsunami surge with the energy of the one that reached coastal Japan, it is clear that effective early warning systems and pre-identified tsunami evacuation areas in affected communities were instrumental in saving many of the lives that might otherwise have been lost. Lessons in recovery and reconstruction will be plentiful. The Kobe experience after the 1995 earthquake is already considered a model the world over, and it is sure that the Japanese will continue to provide strong global leadership in disaster resilience as it rebuilds from this catastrophe.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Stacey White is a senior research consultant in the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3).

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Stacey White