A Conversation about Japan and Disaster Preparedness | Teachers College Columbia University

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A Conversation about Japan and Disaster Preparedness

Tom Chandler, a TC alumnus and adjunct professor who is a research associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health,offers insights about events unfolding in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami and discusses the state of readiness in the United States.

By Joe Levine

Tom Chandler, a graduate of TC’s Social Studies and Education Program and now an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the College, is a research associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. In the following Q and A, Chandler offers insights about events unfolding in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami and discusses the state of readiness in the United States.

For information about personal preparedness for disaster, read a brochure developed by NCDP and the Children’s Health Fund at http://bit.ly/eZ7t0o.

NCDP also has developed a “Preparedness Wizard,” accessible at http://bit.ly/eFTDux, that can help develop a customized personal plan.

Q: I’m sure it’s an overused phrase, but it seems as though what’s happening in Japan right now is kind of a perfect storm. How do you look at that, given your understanding of how geography affects situations like this?

A: Of all the countries in the world, when it comes to tsunamis and earthquakes, Japan is always noted as being one of the most prepared, with the highest level of citizen preparedness and professional expertise, as well the infrastructure to handle earthquakes and tsunamis of this magnitude.

So when you look at this from the perspective of the geographic landscape and emergency preparedness – it’s more a question of, “What can we learn from how Japan is handling this?" It is also important to note that the General Electric-designed nuclear reactors involved in this Japanese disaster are very similar to 23 reactors in use in the United States, with some being exposed to the same seismic risks.

Q: So this isn’t a situation to criticize, it’s one in which we should be trying to learn?

A: Yes. Some U.S. cities, particularly on the west coast, have the same geographic vulnerability. They have that same vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis, and subsequent concerns about the adequacy of their backup systems.

And I think it’s really forcing U.S. policymakers and groups focusing on environmental concerns such as climate change to reevaluate nuclear power as a primary energy resource for the future.

Q: Because they’re refiguring the political support for nuclear power – or because nuclear power is really not safe?

A: A lot of it is refiguring the political consensus – but there’s also a concern that some of these nuclear plants built over the last 40 years are at extreme risk to earthquakes of this magnitude.  So there’s a real question about whether new third generation nuclear power plants might be able to overcome these extreme challenges. 

There have also been suggestions in the U.S. Congress this week about limiting or completely ceasing construction of new nuclear plants. And citizen groups are also calling for having  a more open process in terms of how nuclear power plants are operating, and determining what the backup plans are if something goes seriously wrong.

Q: Let’s talk about tsunamis for a moment. What kind of time window is there between when an earthquake hits and the resulting tsunami?

A: That time is often very brief, and was especially so in Japan. The quake happed near the coast, and people had just minutes to evacuate the area. And Japan has one of the most advanced tsunami warning systems, and they practice tsunami procedures in their K-12 curriculum. The Japanese government even recently completed a $1 billion investment in earthquake early-warning technology. But basically there’s only a few minutes to run and leave everything behind when you’re so close to the epicenter. It’s very difficult to move the bulk of the population – particularly the elderly, children and others who are socially vulnerable.

Q: You said before that Japan has model procedures for dealing with earthquakes and tsunamis. Can you describe those?

A: They have a very sophisticated incident command system. It’s a structure with a person at the top making specific decisions, and everyone else following through a chain of command. It’s working well right now for urgent response needs such as debris removal and recovery efforts for socially vulnerable populations in need of shelter. 

Q: You mean they’re actually rescuing more people than might have happened elsewhere?

A: Yes. And people who have survived this extremely complex disaster are getting a level of care that U.S. response agencies should take note of -- and they are.

Q: So – is the level of response that occurred during Katrina, or the lack of response, essentially a picture of where we still are now in the U.S.?

A: In some ways, yes, Hurricane Katrina is an accurate depiction of where the U.S. is with its procedures. An effective response involves extensive planning, investment in preparedness, coordinated leadership, integration with the private sector and volunteer organizations. And in many ways, the U.S. has a long way to go in all those areas to be prepared for a mega-disaster of this extent. And it’s been ten years since the September 11th terrorist attacks and six years since Hurricane Katrina.

Q: Is that true across the board in the U.S., or does our level of preparedness vary from state to state?

A: It does vary state by state, and even county by county. Some counties are very prepared, and others, often in geographically and socially vulnerable areas, are not as prepared as they should be.

Q: How about in this region?

A: In this region, a lot of what would constitute effective preparation centers on what would happen during a large-scale evacuation. If you have, say, two million people who need to evacuate New York City and go elsewhere within  the state or to another state, there needs to be a better level of planning between counties and between states, and there needs to be a more streamlined approach to communications among Federal, state and local agencies.

Q: More streamlined, meaning less red-tape and more empowerment?

A: Yes, and also more training exercises and more communication about the provision of supplies. Because there is really only a 72-hour window after a large scale disaster to save as many lives as possible.

Or, if you have a critical infrastructure problem – if the electrical power grid goes down –you need to know how you’re going to get people from different regional agencies to work together.

Q: Back on the risks posed by the situation in the nuclear facilities – as I understand it, by letting seawater in to cool the reactor, they’re creating radioactive steam. How dangerous is that, and what are the elements in the steam that are dangerous?

A: Since the power plant cooling systems have been down for so long, the strategy has been to flood the reactors with sea water and then vent the steam, while letting the easterly wind blow any radioactive material out to sea. But, today, an explosion damaged the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air. And the Japanese government told people living within 18 miles of the Daiichi plant to stay indoors, keep their windows closed and stop using air conditioning. There’s also a pill, potassium iodide, which Japanese officials are giving out to children and pregnant women, but only during the first few hours after exposure.

The other issue is the threat of radioactive material being blown by the wind to other more populous areas of Japan or even other countries.

Q: We’ve also heard that there are a very small number of people with full-blown radioactive sickness.

A: It’s possible that people working directly at the reactor site, as well as relief workers who are in that area, could be experiencing effects similar to those from Chernobyl. But Chernobyl affected a much larger area. And I did also see that the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, which was traveling to Japan, supposedly went through a cloud of radiation. There are about 17 sailors being tested for possible exposure, although in very small amounts.

Another disturbing aspect of this situation is the potential for discrimination against people exposed to radiation.  For instance, Lufthansa is scanning its flights from Japan for radioactivity. There’s likely to be more of that in the coming weeks – and it’s also likely that these nuclear plants will be spewing smaller amounts of radiation for many weeks, and maybe even many months. So there’s a potential for, and a history of, people being viewed as coming from one region being discriminated against, whether they’ve been exposed to radiation or not.

Q: Do people who have been exposed to radiation constitute a threat to others?

A: It depends on the level of exposure and when the person is exposed. In most circumstances, this is an overreaction. For the U.S., for large-scale evacuations, you can imagine situations where there’s a small rural town, and 3,000 people come from an urban area that’s been labeled by the media as having been exposed to radiation. And you can imagine significant problems in terms of what that small town would do, or not do, to care of those people. We saw that with New Orleans, for just a hurricane, when people were trying to leave the city and the state.

Q: And those people weren’t ill. They were just being looked at as a potential economic burden.

A: Right.

Q: Again, back to Japan’s readiness – despite their preparedness there, this has obviously inflicted enormous damage. Is there simply a limit to what readiness can accomplish?

A: I think Japan has prepared for large earthquakes, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for an earthquake of this magnitude, followed by a tsunami of this magnitude, and then a potential nuclear catastrophe. So it could be suggested that there are earthquakes and then there are quakes of this magnitude. And such an earthquake has the potential to generate massive aftershocks and more tsunamis.

Q: What about health issues arising from the situation – like cholera, for instance? Is that not an issue, as it was in Haiti, because Japan is a wealthy society?

A: I just saw an article that 2,000 bodies just washed up on the coastline, and that there are two million people with no food, water, power, medicine or access to hospitals. So there are definitely concerns about the spread of diseases like cholera, due to contaminated drinking water. And Japan also has an enormous elderly population that’s extremely vulnerable.  In turn, this impacts hospitals, long-term care facilities, and the lack of transportation resources.

Q: How is the international community responding, and what would constitute an effective response?

A: One thing that our center is working on right now is creating a training guide for first responders entering the region. Organizations are sending volunteers who many be having their first experience in a disaster zone, so our materials are designed to get them  thinking about what they need to bring and how to prepare themselves, both physically and psychologically. We’re also focusing on ways to work with first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress. And beyond that, there are the potential concerns about radiation sickness.

Q: What are the key things the center is doing during this crisis?

A: We’re focusing on the acute survival window, such as helping the international first responders going in. We’re looking at environmental issues – the quality of wastewater treatment, sanitation facilities. We’re looking at critical infrastructure failures, grids going down. And we’re focusing on the socially vulnerable populations. In many of the areas around the nuclear power plants, the populations are more vulnerable. Some of what we’re doing is aimed at helping people going to Japan to do rescue work, but a lot of it is about mapping the experience of what’s going on there to what could happen here. We’re doing a lot of translating of what’s going on there to what we can learn in the context of the U.S., so that we can be better prepared here.

Q: I understand that TC now has a stake in the Disaster Preparedness Center?

A: Yes, through a Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Centers (PERLC) grant sponsored by the US Centers for Disease Control, we have a new Columbia Regional Learning Center to develop just-in-time training for public health workers and emergency personnel. We’re working with TC to develop just-in-time materials that can be distributed immediately in disaster situations like this. For instance, a Columbia faculty member from the School of Nursing, Professor Richard Garfield, has traveled to disaster zones like Haiti and Pakistan in the past. He’s going to conduct a just-in-time training session, and we’re going to videotape it and send it to first-responders going to Japan. We’re also working on more robust curricula with EdLab at Teachers College around the theme of citizen readiness and curricula geared for the mid-level public health workforce. So much of this involves what people know and what they think about in terms of preparing for disasters, and what types of supplies are available to them.

So EdLab has created materials to get public health workers and the general citizenry to reflect on their state of readiness. For example, having a network of family and friends that you’ll get in contact with during a disaster. Or considering whether you have the ability and willingness to go to work, even though you need to care for loved ones at home. Or determining what percentage of the citizenry are prepared to act as first responders during those first crucial hours of a large disaster.

There’s also a kind of categorization we use to consider people  as lions, lone wolves  or lambs. Research suggests that about twenty percent of the general population will act as lions – they’re better prepared, they’ve taken classes in CPR, they’re likely to assume leadership roles. Then, about 60 percent of the population will go their own way, as lone wolves. Maybe they’ll stock up on some supplies, but not much more. And then about 20 percent are lambs. They’ll listen to messages about where to go, but they won’t do much more. So each group needs different social messages about how to respond during a disaster.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2011


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