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After Fukushima, part 8

Fumiya Sekine, age 6, and his mom Kaori Sekine play with his new pets — a pair of stag beetles. The Sekine family evacuated from their home in Kawauchi village, 20 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, due to high radiation levels in the village. They have lived in a one-room “temporary housing center” apartment in Koriyama city since the complex opened in June 2011. They have no idea how long they’ll stay here.
Disaster Management 101
Got a crisis on your hands? Maybe your roof is leaking after a heavy snow. Maybe there’s a mile-wide tornado roaring towards your town. Or maybe, like Kaori Sekine and her family, your village is suddenly radioactive.

Whatever your crisis, experts in disaster management speak about four stages of managing it. These are: (1) mitigation, (2) preparation, (3) response and (4) recovery. Mitigation is all about reducing risk — anticipating the worst that can happen and figuring out what we can do to make it merely bad. The preparation stage involves emergency planning and practice, so that everyone is ready when the disaster hits. Response, well, I’m not going to break that down for you: it’s putting your emergency plan into action. And recovery is the long slow road back to normal — or finding a new norm if your old life is forever gone.

Mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. In other words, by the time you see the tornado coming, the experts are already on to stage 3. The rest of us are two steps behind them. Maybe you meant to repair the roof last fall but never got to it. Maybe you wanted to dig tornado shelters but got stymied by red clay and red tape in a red state. Sorry about that, Oklahoma. When you’re standing in the nuclear plant control room with wet feet, it’s too late to build a higher seawall.

The fact is, preparing well for every possible disaster is expensive. Who wants to spend their hard-earned cash building a 50 foot seawall if 19 feet has always been sufficient? Who wants to spend money on a new roof if you can just patch the old one? Until, in hindsight, it seems completely necessary and stupid to not have done it right.

There’s always a balance between our assessment of risk and the cost of preparation. The lack of political will to prepare fully means we just wait for a calamity to strike. Then, once the children are dead but before they are buried, our priorities suddenly shift.

Our pattern of responding to disasters is so consistent that it’s completely predictable. By next year, I expect, more schools in Oklahoma will have tornado shelters and schools in Connecticut will have door code security. For a few years, the Boston Marathon will have more police protection and factories in Dhaka will have better enforcement of building codes. Every district in Fukushima Prefecture is now having emergency drills. If disaster strikes a second time we’ll be more prepared. But then, if nothing goes wrong for a decade, we’ll let things slide again.

If you went to an American public school between 1960 and 1990, chances are it had a fallout shelter. You may remember the sign, probably posted by the back door where the smokers hung out. But I bet you were never down there. Built during the Cold War, these basements were equipped to protect schoolkids from those Russian missiles that never came.

If we had a Fukushima in the U.S. today, we’d find most of those fallout shelters unusable. The one in my high school, I heard, got filled with jazz band instruments and art supplies. In Moore and Sandy Hook and Far Rockaway and Boston and even in Fukushima, the recovery will peter out and then so will the preparations for next time. Some will still carry wounds but the rest of us will forget.

Tomorrow: disaster management in Chernobyl

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