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March 19, 2011

Japan devastation: Powerful reminder of our limitations

The images were surreal. People screaming from higher ground as they watched the relentless wave of brown water sweep up houses and topple power lines. Cars and boats floating like bath toys. Aerial photos of flattened villages, with crumpled roofs jutting out of the debris-laden landscape and orange-suited rescue workers like ants on a mountain of twigs.

Even as the disaster in Japan continues to unfold, with workers frantically trying to cool nuclear reactors to prevent a full-scale meltdown, it seems clear that it will be one of the deadliest and most costly in modern times. As of Wednesday, an estimated 12,000 people were dead or missing in the wake of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan last Friday.

Hundreds of thousands more were left homeless, huddled in blankets at makeshift shelters and waiting for food, water and news of loved ones. Millions of households remained without power or drinking water, and food and gas were scarce. The luckiest Japanese were facing rolling blackouts, disrupted train service, slow business and uncertainty over the plume of particles that may, or may not, contain enough radiation to be harmful and may, or may not, blow in their direction.

It was a triple-whammy the likes of which we've never seen and simply cannot fathom. A great earthquake (the fourth-largest since 1900) followed by a devastating tsunami, followed by an industrial disaster. As dozens of aftershocks rattled survivors and thwarted rescue missions, hydrogen explosions and fires at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant forced thousands of people to evacuate and trapped others in their homes, hoping masks and sealed windows would protect them from the invisible threat of radiation sickness.

The devastation a world away is, first and foremost, a powerful and tragic reminder of our limitations. But it has also offered lessons in hope and resilience, seen in everything from the bravery of the Fukushima workers risking their lives to avert a nuclear crisis to the compassion of the 6-year-old girl from Atlanta who raised $300 for the relief effort by selling her artwork.

In a televised address Wednesday, Japanese Emperor Akihito urged his people to "never give up hope." Alongside the images of death and destruction, the CNN headlines chronicled stories of hope and survival: "`Miracles' in a sea of death," "Survivor walks 20 hours for love," "Man records his quake escape." The survival stories offered small bits of respite from the horrible news: an elderly couple found alive in their car; a 60-year-old man rescued floating on his roof; a 4-month-old baby pulled, unharmed, from the rubble after three days and reunited with her parents.

As we struggle to imagine the unimaginable, we reassure ourselves that nothing like this could happen here, but we have no guarantees. It's sobering to know that there are nuclear power plants with the same GE design as Fukushima as close as Oswego. It's ironic to learn that, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. plant with the highest risk of core damage from an earthquake (a 1 in 10,000 chance each year) is not located above a California fault line but, rather, in a small town north of New York City on the Hudson River.

We tend to think of earthquakes as rare events, but, according to the U.S. Geological Service, they happen about 50 times a day. In fact, we can expect 17 major earthquakes and one great earthquake (8.0 or greater magnitude) every year, and chances are, they won't all be so far removed. In fact, the USGS estimates there's a 67 percent probability of a major earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area sometime in the next 30 years.

We may tell ourselves we're prepared for disaster, but Japan was known for its preparedness, which means none of us is prepared for the worst.

We can put together disaster kits and hold emergency preparedness drills. We can build stronger sea walls and tougher buildings. But history has shown that we should not expect to outwit the forces of nature.

Ultimately, hope and compassion are all we have.

How to help: Text 90999 and type RED CROSS to make a $10 donation to the relief effort, or visit

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at

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