[Viewpoint] The land shakes, the people are calm

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[Viewpoint] The land shakes, the people are calm

It was too surreal and terrifying to watch. The apocalyptic vistas following a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Japan looked more like a CGI sequence from a disaster film. Friday’s earthquake generated a 30-foot wall of ferocious water that attacked buildings, hoisted cars and ships, and engulfed coastal cities.

One of Japan’s most beautiful northeastern coastal cities, Sendai, was awash and in tatters after waters coursed through the town at a speed of 30 to 40 miles per hour. It took a slight movement in the ocean floor to spur a tsunami of explosive energy tantamount to an atomic bomb.

As the omnipotent waves moved in to wipe out an entire coastline of northern Japan, a news broadcaster couldn’t help himself from crying out: “There’s nothing we can do!” It was a harrowing realization of how helpless human beings can be against the forces of nature, regardless of all their technological and scientific achievements.

The Japanese are well-trained for earthquakes, yet they couldn’t conceal their fear as they reeled from the most powerful quake in their history. A 70-year-old lamented that he had never witnessed such a traumatic quake in his lengthy life. The death toll may reach tens of thousands, and at least two nuclear reactors have experienced explosions and could possibly melt down. The city of Kesennuma, close to the epicenter of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency, was engulfed in flames from ruptured oil pipelines.

The Japanese people, nevertheless, maintained their calm. Foreign correspondents and reporters were dumbfounded by the stoic and organized way the Japanese responded to the tragedy. These people are humans, after all, just as susceptible to fear as anyone else would be if the earth shook, buildings crumbled and cars and debris slammed through the streets.

Yet they moved quickly to orders from loudspeakers following instincts developed through years of disaster drills. The government immediately went on alert. People came running out of the buildings in helmets and lined up in front of shelters. They have learned from years of practice following many such disasters.

The sight of the Japanese behavior makes us wonder whether we would be as brave and ready if such a threat reached our shores. Experts assure us we are safe from tsunamis. But we need to ask ourselves if we are really prepared for natural disasters that come unannounced.

We shrug off natural disasters as curses on others, and that has resulted in a shameful underdevelopment of our disaster preparedness and public awareness of such dangers. Some 17 years ago when the Seongsu Bridge collapsed, a construction vessel was the first to come to the scene, and when a department store crumbled the following year, a television broadcaster arrived at the site before rescuers. And last summer, weather authorities issued typhoon warning after strong winds had already swept across the capital. Meanwhile, a 1995 earthquake in Kobe cost 6,400 lives, but it showed how civilians can work together before and after a major crisis.

Japan is the best nation in the world for emergency preparedness. The secret is in constant training. The Japanese people commit themselves to disaster training once a month. It takes only three minutes for 500 students to escape from a school building to take shelter. Children from a very early age learn not to push, run or talk in emergency situations. All buildings are equipped with emergency kits, and public buildings automatically become civilian shelters in times of crisis.

Apart from government agencies, civilian volunteer organizations offer reliable back-up. Volunteer disaster support centers are operating in every town, and some 2,474 are equipped with firefighting equipment. They run on the labor of 890,000 volunteer workers. The community emergency teams shift to full-time rescue operations in real-life disasters. Separate community rescue teams also are active in cities and bigger towns to help carry residents to safe places in times of emergency.

These community workers and organizations were the true heroes behind the rapid restoration of earthquake-hit Kobe. Thousands rushed to a city devastated by a 7.3-magnitute earthquake and helped residents out of the rubble. A broader nationwide rescue network was organized in Japan in 1999. The emergency NPO center that coordinates aid from companies, the government and civilians dispatched volunteers to northeastern Japan for rescue and relief a few hours after the quake.

Earthquakes also shook central Japan and may head west. Our eastern coastal area may no longer be entirely immune. The Korean Peninsula has experienced small earthquakes about ten times since the 1980s. No lives are immune to nature’s viciousness. We can only be better prepared. But we’re not.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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