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Grim Anniversary in Japan a Reminder of Natural Disasters in Hawai‘i

Larry Loos / FLickr
Larry Loos / FLickr

This Friday marks five years since a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. More than 16-thousand people were killed and another 7,000 were injured. The estimated $235-billion in damages makes it the costliest natural disaster in human history.  It was also a life-changing experience for HPR guest commentator Ray Tsuchiyama who now works with a national disaster training center in Honolulu.

While terrorist acts or shootings dominate the media, natural hazards from earthquakes and tsunami to hurricanes cause the greatest loss of life and property. In 1992 Hurricane Iniki killed six and caused $3 billion in damages, destroying 1,400 houses and severely damaging more than 5,000 (on an island of barely 60,000 residents). Iniki remains in the top three of the costliest Pacific hurricanes—and was one of 11 hurricanes that year. 

Last year an unprecedented three major hurricanes formed in the West, Central, and East Pacific simultaneously.  If only one had drifted to Hawaii, the impact could have been devastating.  Luck may not be always be with Hawai?i.  Natural hazards demand continued investment in preparedness and training for communities.  And continued awareness as individuals.  April 1st and May 23rd are two tsunami-linked dates in Hilo, where 221 lives were lost, along with a railway and many commercial and residential properties.  As it rebuilt, Hilo set aside low-lying areas as parks dedicated to residents who perished in the tsunami: a physical expression of "learning,” especially for future generations. 

I am reminded of stone markers on hills in Japan’s Tohoku region found only after the March 11th tsunami.  They showed how high the water rose during a tsunami centuries ago. Unfortunately, city planners dismissed these markers as describing ancient events that would “never come again”.  Japanese television pictures of tsunami surges carrying off entire homes and floating trucks and cars like Lego parts still replay endlessly in my mind.  A month after the March 11th disaster, and after two decades of an exciting and fulfilling life in Tokyo, my spouse and I reluctantly decided to relocate from Japan.  “Resiliency” is the ability to recover, and more importantly, to learn lessons from natural disasters and prepare and plan accordingly as communities and first, as individuals.

Ray Tsuchiyama is the Deputy Director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawai‘i. HPR welcomes guest commentaries. If you have an idea for one, please contact our news director Bill Dorman by email at bdorman@hawaiipublicradio.org.

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