What Seattle needs to learn from Japan's quake

Some years ago, business leaders saw how thoroughly Japan trains its citizens for natural disasters. But the attempt to build a Preparedness Center in Seattle is still awaiting funds.

Crosscut archive image.

Damage from the Nisqually Quake of 2001.

Some years ago, business leaders saw how thoroughly Japan trains its citizens for natural disasters. But the attempt to build a Preparedness Center in Seattle is still awaiting funds.

Christchurch, New Zealand is Seattle’s sister city. Sendai, Japan is called the Green City and the location for past trips from Seattle delegations led by the Trade Alliance. Both have been severely damaged by recent earthquakes. It's time to heed what Shakespeare wrote,"To fear the worst often cures the worst," and to ask, are we prepared?

The Trade Alliance and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce annually organize an International Study Mission to a city of the world to benchmark our region and to study best practices. The 2007 visit was to Fukuoka, Japan and that visit presented our leadership with an experience that stimulated us to action.

We had taken a business mission to Fukuoka before but a study mission requires a different program and larger venues. I was reading the guide book on the plane when I noticed one of the tourist destinations was a Disaster Training Center. What? I had to visit this; no where in America would a city tout disaster preparedness as a tourist experience.

I visited a hotel nearby on a beautiful Sunday and the hotel staff told me the training center was only a few blocks away but thought it closed on Sunday. I walked over to look. To my surprise not only was it open but there was a line of families in the parking lot waiting to enter. I paid a fee, toured the facility, and watched the activities. To a young staff member who spoke English I said that I was impressed that the parents were bringing their children for the training. She told me that was incorrect. Every school child in Fukuoka must come once a year and the children were bringing their parents.

"Experience is the child of thought and thought is the child of action," Disraeli wrote. Just so: Every major Japanese city has an experience-based Home Safety and Disaster Preparedness Center. They are run by the fire departments of the city. They are used not only for school children but training care givers from nursing homes and school teachers. Every new Toyota employee and all who work at a U.S. Navy base use the one in that city to certificate baby sitters.

Here are some of the things they experienced in the center. A glass wall projects a room in a typical house. A waste paper basket catches on fire. The retired fireman says Go! and four of our delegates run to the wall and pick up water fire extinguishers. They all pump away any if successful the fire goes out; if not the room engages. Others enter a room and experience a typhoon. Four people sit on chairs around a table with a gas stove. They experience a level 5 and then a level 7 earthquake. These are just a few examples of experience-based training that includes CPR to flood preparedness.

All our 70-plus delegates went through the center. None had ever used a fire extinguisher. Many did not know you aim at the base of the fire, not the flames. The experience had effects. One said he was going to bolt his house to the foundation. Scott Armstrong, CEO of Group Health, led an effort to develop a similar facility in Seattle.

The City Council led by Richard Conlin and Jan Drago appropriated $75,000. A number of companies and Group Health made donations. A firm was retained with a Japanese-speaking architect, who visited four facilities in Japan. The result was a series of recommendations included in the study,"Puget Sound Preparedness and Home Safety Center," by Arai Jackson Ellison Morakami. The location that made sense was Seattle Center with the 12 million visitors a year.

The Preparedness Center should have a strong home safety component. It is not just earthquakes and floods but putting new batteries in the smoke detector that need to be presented in creative ways. The Center should be tied to the Pacific Science Center to add the science of fire and earthquakes as well as the training.

The United States was searched and the team discovered there was nothing like the Japanese approach. We came to realize this the Seattle Preparedness Center should be an obvious national demonstration with a strong evaluation of the effectiveness. The recession stopped the local progress, and we concluded that a project of national significance should have national support.

We explored the possibility that the Defense Department might be interested, given the large military presence in our region. We realized the Department of Homeland Security had a budget of $55 billion, so we suggested that the Director visit Japan and experience their approach. Unfortunately, we were not successful in developing interest even though many of the professionals told us the current system and the millions spent on it were not effective.

As I watched the videos of Christchurch and the destruction in Sendai — a place I have visited on a number of occasions — I awoke again to the need to re-examine how we inform the public and instill preparedness. Maybe our team should send a copy of the study to the Library of Congress with instructions to open after the next major earthquake. The motto could be taken from a remark by Richard Malins: "It is better to put a strong fence around the cliff than an ambulance down in the valley."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors