Shakedown Artists

Earthquake expert Michael K. Lindell explains why the Japanese are better than the rest of us at preparing for earthquakes -- and what we can learn from them.


The images of March 11’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan — landscapes awash in flaming debris, cars piled up in parking lots like toys, industrial facilities exploding amid dense black smoke — are staggering. But what’s actually most amazing is that things aren’t worse; the death toll, while horrific, is orders of magnitude less than the far less geophysically impressive earthquake in Haiti last year. FP spoke with Michael K. Lindell, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University and a leading expert in the field of earthquake response — who, as it happened, was at a meeting of the U.S. government’s multi-agency earthquake planning group when we called. He explained why the Japanese are better than everyone else at planning for earthquakes, how real estate developers are hurting the United States’ ability to withstand similar tremors, and why earthquake experts are more interested in what’s in local building codes than what’s on CNN right now.

Foreign Policy: So you’re at a gathering of earthquake experts who just happen to be meeting on the day of the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history.

Michael K. Lindell: Right.

FP: What’s the conversation like?

ML: For people who do earthquakes and other hazards for a living, the occurrence of any one event isn’t really news. It’s news in the sense that it was that magnitude in that place, but we knew sooner or later it was going to happen. One of the things we’re trying to do is push the focus away from response and recovery to mitigation and preparedness.

FP: What separates a terrible earthquake from a bad one? What are the factors that matter here?

ML: Being in a bad location makes a lot of difference — if you’re on a fault line that’s been locked up for a long time, as we’ve seen in Japan today and in Chile last year. So, given that you’re in a bad location, what do you do about it? That really makes the difference between a Haiti and a Chile. Because the earthquake in Haiti had about between five and 10 times the economic impact and about 500 times the casualties as the earthquake in Chile, even though the one in Chile was orders of magnitude more intense.

A number of things made the difference. The first is that you’ve got maps. They know where the faults are; they know where the problem areas are: not just on the faults, but on bad soils that are prone to liquefaction — basically, it just turns to quicksand. And once you’ve got the maps, you’ve also got the building codes, the risk information getting out to people — how do you build buildings so you avoid collapses? So you have steel-reinforced structures, rather than just masonry, bricks. Once a building starts shaking side to side, unreinforced masonry is terrible.

Even if you put that kind of stuff in the codes, you can always make a building cheaper by not putting in the steel reinforcing. So what you need to do is make sure the local jurisdiction has effective building inspections. And not everybody wants to have strong building codes — it’s cheaper to build if the building codes are weak. That means you can sell houses cheaper; you can get more people to buy your houses. In Texas, just before an increase in the building code requirements that was imposed by the Texas Department of Insurance, there was a big run on building permits — because all of the builders wanted to lock in their permit applications under the old, less stringent codes, which would keep their costs down. It’s like, why are you in a hurry to kill your customers? But obviously, they don’t see it that way.

FP: How does Japan rate in this regard?

ML: They are in better shape than we [Americans] are in terms of how their buildings are constructed. We have variation in the United States — our best by far for building codes is California. Japan had the kind of preparedness for the tsunami that they needed. The reports we’ve gotten so far are that, given the distance from the earthquake epicenter and the quality of the construction, that there was not a lot of earthquake damage in Tokyo and the other major cities.

The Japanese have been working on this for a long time. They put money into detection systems. There are a number of different kinds of earthquake waves that spread out from the epicenter: There’s a primary wave that arrives very quickly, a secondary wave that arrives a little bit later. Some of the instrumentation can detect the primary wave and use that as a basis for doing things like stopping elevators at floors instead of between floors, warning hospitals to tell the doctors to take the scalpels out of people’s chests before the arrival of the secondary wave. There are some of these warning systems that, unless you’re right on top of the epicenter, there’s enough time between the arrival of the primary and secondary waves to give people some warning, especially for some of these critical operations: surgical operations, electrical power systems, some kinds of chemical facilities that can shut down their facilities so that if there is any kind of rupture of the pipes, they can automatically turn valves to isolate different parts of the system.

FP: So it becomes an issue of being able to move information quickly.

ML: Right, that’s a big part of it. Anything that’s a hazardous operation, you can act in time to keep something really bad from happening — so if you’ve got the bullet trains moving 150 to 200 miles an hour, you can bring those to a stop until the tracks can be checked. You can shut down industrial operations. And giving people enough forewarning that they can get themselves to a safe location, like standing in a doorway. That’s another question we ask: What did the death toll end up being? What was the epidemiology of those deaths? Were there certain types of locations? Were there certain types of people who were more likely to be dead or injured than others?

FP: How widely do those patterns vary from country to country, in the quake in Japan versus the quake in Haiti or Chile?

ML: I think it has more to do with the structures that people are in rather than the behavior of people. During the Kobe earthquake, there were a lot of people who were killed who were living in very traditional Japanese-style houses that had heavy tile roofs. The roofs collapsed, and that killed a number of people. They also found out some of their elevated freeways were not as well designed as they thought. It was sort of like what happened with the Loma Prieta earthquake in Oakland — the people on the lower freeway were crushed because the pillars collapsed; the upper deck fell on the lower deck, and people were just flattened.

FP: Are there countries that have done a better job of learning these lessons than others?

ML: The Japanese are probably the best in the world, though the state of California is pretty close to where the Japanese are. When a building collapses, they have organized community groups, their emergency response organizations that are equipped to do search and rescue. They’re among the world’s leaders. An earthquake of this magnitude, if it had been in any country other than Japan, I think we’d be seeing casualty estimates that would be multiples of what they are now.

FP: Why has Japan done so much better than everyone else?

ML: A couple things. One is the frequency. In 1923, there was an earthquake in Tokyo that pretty much leveled the city, very much like San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, and a huge fire. Most of the building structures were wood, very lightly built, and very combustible. They had very limited firefighting capacity. So they learned from events like that. And of course they’ve got earthquake hazards, volcano hazards, tsunami hazards — they’re all related to each other — because they’re close to a subduction zone. But they don’t have tornadoes; they don’t really have typhoons. In the United States, there are many more hazards, so our hazard preparedness is spread out across many more kinds of hazards, and that leads to a fragmentation. And Japan is roughly the size of California.

FP: So you have a relatively small country that faces variations on one type of natural disaster.

ML: Right. It’s easier to focus.

FP: Do systems of governance matter?

ML: A unitary versus a federal system makes a difference. In a unitary system like Japan, that’s one reason they’re better prepared — once the national government says, we’re going to do this, it’s a much more direct path to funding the agencies to do it, getting the implementation done. Here in the United States, obviously, it’s very different. Because of climatic differences, we don’t have a national building code, or land use regulations. And between land use and building construction practices, that makes a huge difference.

If you want to make a building earthquake-proof, the engineers can do it. It’s just the cost. So then the question becomes, what is the local benefit-cost balance on adding this or that feature to buildings or land-use practices? All of those are local decisions, and the federal government has limited control over those decisions. Local politicians, developers, and most citizens want their communities to grow. So there’s this local growth machine that tends to expand into hazard-prone areas: building on slopes that are prone to landslides, building on flood plains, trying to build cheaper, just enough to get by rather than enough to withstand the impact of a hazard. And when you get that kind of construction, building the wrong kinds of structures in the wrong places, when you get a disaster, who’s called upon to support the disaster recovery? It isn’t local government, because it’s usually overwhelmed. It’s the federal government.

So the federal government ends up paying for the mistakes of local government. It’s kind of a pathological system; it’s masquerading as a free market system or local control, but it’s massively subsidized by the taxpayers. Ideally, people who live in risky structures or risky places should pay for the privilege of doing so. The people who are living in low-disaster areas are subsidizing people in the high-disaster areas, but they don’t realize it.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.