What could the Japanese have done to have been better prepared for the tsunami?

As one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, situated in the seismological Ring of Fire and constantly preparing for the next big one, Japan’s relative losses (while certainly still a tragedy) are probably less than what most other countries would’ve suffered.

Still, 8000 dead is 8000 dead.

What could have been done better? The seawalls failed – could they have been engineered even taller or even stronger? Was the tsunami simply bigger than even the projected worst-case scenario? Are there policy decisions that could’ve helped?

If such a thing were to happen again in the future, what would it take to decrease the death toll to zero – or is that completely unrealistic?

(Note: Please leave the nuclear and earthquake casualties out of this. Japan is already phenomenally well-equipped to handle dry shaking, I believe, and the nuclear situation has its other threads already.)

I don’t know…

The death toll is now believed to be 18,000-20,000+.

Well, ok.

One of the main problems is water is an unholy strong bitch of a natural force.

Water delivers a very heavy force in the form of a tsunami, and a 3 story wall of water is not something you can easily just put up barriers against.

Really, I think if the engineers in Japan could have done something, they would have, after all, they originated the word tsunami so I think it is something they know a bit about historically =)

Moved Japan somewhere else?

Not much.

Don’t build in valleys, along river deltas and along coast. Sea wall problem: ONE breach = turning whole areas in lakes.


A 9.0? Seriously? I don’t walk around prepared for a Category 6 hurricane, and my house can’t handle 50" of snow.

Isn’t a 9.0 something like 100 times more powerful than a 8.0? And an 8 is RIDICULOUSLY strong! And it was a 9.0 with major uplift.

Even at 20K the death toll is much less than the Indonesian tsunami at about 236,000 dead and missing.

Put the backup generators on higher ground.

This (backup generators used for shutdown-cooling were inundated by the tsunami) is what seems to have caused the problems with the nuclear plants, not any particular degree of shaking from the earthquake. The generators should have been on the roof of the plant, or on raised platforms with waterproof walls around them. The problems at the nuke plants didn’t need to happen.

As for other preparation, seawalls could help. Even if not tall enough and wide enough to exclude all of the water, seawalls that block most of it could limit the total volume of water delivered onshore and mitigate the damage.

The tsunami warning system worked, but I imagine they’ll work on making it faster. I thought I heard that some places only had ten minute between warning and inundation. Admittedly this was a tough one because the quake (and tsunami origin) was so close to shore, but any increase in warning time helps: if you’re at the shore, and you don’t own a car, ten minutes isn’t much time to travel five miles inland, even if you get the warning right away.

This would probably be the best solution in the long run, but unfortunately Japan doesn’t have a whole lot of real estate to work with and I suspect that many (if not most) of the tsunami-ravaged areas will be rebuilt eventually. From the photos I’ve seen, a good deal of the inundated land was used for farming, and arable land is something even more precious to such a densly-populated country.

Exactly. What the scientists cannot stress enough, IMO, is that an earthquake of this magnitude had NEVER previously been recorded in this part of the world.Going by this list, there have been only five earthquakes total in the history of the world known to have reached 9.0 or greater in magnitude. Meanwhile, the earthquake that devastated Kobe was “only” a 6.8 and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (the benchmark earthquake in Japanese history) was 7.9. Add in the fact that the earthquake occurred close enough to shore to give most people no more than a few minutes’ warning of the tsunami - the rest of the Pacific had the luxury of hours in most places to evacuate coastal areas, and these were areas that hadn’t just been devastated by an earthquake.

While there may be some tightening of evacuation procedure and disaster protocol, it could well be that death tolls are ultimately unavoidable from situations like these as long as people choose to live that close to the shore in low-lying areas.

Most tsunami evacuation routes aren’t inland but instead are up. Most of the villages have alert systems and they used them. The failures and the cause of the casualties was time. The tsunami hit land 20 mins after the earthquake. It takes 3-5 mins for the monitoring stations to confirm the occurance and then another couple of minutes to distribute the information to the alert systems. That left most people, even the ones who sleep with their cell phones next to them and their shoes beside the beds a maximum of 12-15 minutes to grab and run.

They have to wait for the confirmation because if they don’t repeated false alarms will cause people to ignore the warnings, but waiting for the confirmation when the earthquake was this close narrowed the evacuation window to almost nothing. I think that without relocating all of Japan out of the valleys and seasides this is the best outcome possible in this particular circumstance; tsunami only, not commenting here on the nuclear situation.

Look at Hawaii for an example of a similar set of circumstances with a longer lead time. Major property damage but zero loss of life. West coast of the US would have been the same if it weren’t for Darwin candidates.

Yes; IMHO what happened in Japan was mostly an example of them being prepared for the tsunami. The situation was simply bad enough that even with being prepared, they still had 18-20k dead.

The Japanese did what they could within reasonable financial and logistical constraints and still have thousands dead.
Better to turn the question on its head and ask what did Japan do and Indonesia didn’t. That probably explains a lot of the death toll reduction. Of course one can always be wise after the event and point out deficiencies in preparation or response.

But seriously, you are not going to walk away from a 9.0 + tsunami without “getting your hair mussed a little”. The preparation of the Japanese prevented a disaster from becoming a catastrophe.

Repeat after me…nature wins, nature wins, nature wins. Every single time.

+1 Duh!!! Yeah!!! Don’t live on the water, or you might get wet. Even a child should understand this simple principle.

Ditto for those stupid people in New Orleans who build BELOW sea level - even more stupid.

They might learn something, but it doesn’t mean they did anything wrong in the first place.

There are certain risks when you live in certain areas, and there is only so much practical effort/expense one can expend to absorb that risk. In reality, it would be virtually impossible to convince everyone that the standards should be measured against a 9.0, near-shore quake with substantial uplift.

We all play the odds.

10 times. Each increase of 1.0 on the scale is a ten-fold increase in the amplitude of the earthquake.

Thanks, kenobi 65.

We should keep this in mind:

This (9.0) earthquake released a surface energy (Me) of 1.9±0.5×1017 joules,[44] dissipated as shaking and tsunamic energy, which is nearly double that of the 9.1-magnitude 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000 people. --Wikipedia


I disagree. It’s not a function of money but of planning. They built an infrastructure on the premise of a lesser event. The sea walls were too low and some of the emergency shelters were too low. People went to “high ground” as instructed and died because the water exceeded it. It’s easy to build a structure to withstand a tsunami. People build houses all the time (in flood plains) that are designed for specific water levels. The “garage” is actually a flow through area where water passes through easily. That is how a storm shelter has to built. The upper level needs to be higher than projected waters and the lower levels are built like a bridge pier.

As far as the nuclear power plants go, they didn’t have a tertiary level backup. They should be built to a higher level of redundancy. That means that electrical wiring, gauges, control equipment must have more backups. I certainly don’t understand why they vented hydrogen gas from the inner core to the outer core structure. They just created a very large bomb in the process of doing so. All of that can be addressed on an engineering level.

Honestly? Not much.

It wasn’t so much they failed as that they were insufficient to the task this time. Sure, they could be built higher and stronger, but there’s a cost to that and the money has to come from someone.

Yes. It was indeed worst than the projected worst-case scenario. This was the largest quake ever recorded in Japan, and in some areas the tsunamis were twice the height of seawalls built to withstand prior tsunamis. I think some of the armchair analysts either don’t know that or forgot that. This was worse than the worst-case prediction.

Unrealistic. The Japanese can rebuild taking into account this particular event, plus a safety margin on top of that, but between the small but present possibility of a tsunami even worse than the new worst-case prediction and the fact that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be deadly, no, you can’t even get the death toll to zero in an event of this magnitude. People near the epicenter will just not have much time in which to escape, and some people - the old, the disabled, the very young, the ill - simply can’t move fast enough to get to safety. People in boats could be slammed against the seawall. It might be possible to breach the seawall if enough boats are thrown at it. That sort of thing.

Could they reduce the death toll? Sure. I think that’s possible. But I don’t think you can have that much coastline slammed with a tsunami and get no deaths whatsoever.