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Time to rethink our disaster preparedness

If there is any nation on earth that is totally prepared to tackle natural disasters it is Japan. Yet last Saturday when we first saw the CNN and BBC footages of the 8.9 magnitude in the Richter Scale earthquake, one would think that the Japanese learned well from the lessons of the Kobe disaster or the Great Hansin earthquake of 1995 because many tall buildings especially in Tokyo seem to have gone unscathed. But from what we saw, the greater destruction was caused by the tsunami that struck the coastal areas of Sendai City in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate Prefecture.

This is not to say that Japan was ill-prepared to meet this disaster. It just so happens that the March 12th earthquake was the biggest earthquake that hit Japan in modern times, the Japanese were simply overwhelmed by Mother Nature’s fury! Even more unexpected are the problems that they faced when reactor number one of the Fukushima Nuclear plants exploded, which was recorded by a video camera, causing alarm that a Chernobyl type of meltdown was imminent. Of course Japan’s nuclear agency is doing its best to contain the radiation leaks caused by the blast.

No doubt the devastation around Sendai City and the coastal areas were unbelievable. Most Japanese homes are made of wood, which is actually a better building material that could withstand earthquakes. However those houses were swept by the tsunami, making these homes look like matchsticks and became battering rams against other homes, all of which were swept away. This means that Japan must come up not just with earthquake proof homes, but homes that could also withstand tsunamis.

I’m sure that you saw Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the other Japanese officials wearing blue collar uniforms issuing statements on TV about the disaster. My sister, Adela Kono, married to Mr. Yuki Kono from Tokyo, texted me that in Japanese culture in times of emergency a coat and tie is not the appropriate wear. When one wears a Blue collar uniform, it means, “They are ready to do the work and get dirty.” 

Indeed, Japan will have to do a massive reconstruction effort akin to what they did in the aftermath of the Second World War. Japan saw the devastation of their major cities. For instance, Tokyo was firebombed by US B-29 Superfortress where more than 100,000 were killed. Japan is also the only nation on earth to have two of their cities notably, Hiroshima and Nagasaki being hit by nuclear bombs. Hence, Japan is also very much experienced in treatment for radiation exposure.

Call them lucky that Japan is the third largest economy in the world and therefore, a massive reconstruction would also force an economic recovery of sorts. If at all, the problem of Japan is the serious shortage of young people that could be tapped for the reconstruction effort. Right now, it is the Japanese Self-Defense Forces that have been tapped to do the rescue effort. There are just too many old people in Japan, many of whom were victims of this latest natural disaster. Perhaps we should offer our thousands of jobless Filipinos to be sent to Japan to help in their clean up effort?

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Meanwhile we need to go back to the drawing boards and ask ourselves whether or not we Filipinos are prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude. I seriously doubt it. Just one look at our fire services and you will see how woefully ill-prepared we are to tackle a disaster that big. Japan’s being a first world country means its Armed Services are well-equipped and well-trained. They were not in short supply of helicopters that did a great job in rescuing 3,000 people in just three days. But what about us? We hardly have enough choppers to mount a massive rescue.

Years ago, I was in Japan with then Mayor Tomas Osmeña and we visited a fire station in the outskirts of Tokyo and the fire officials showed us their alert levels against tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons and fires. They even showed us where their evacuation centers were located, including helipads for helicopters. Their fire department had computers that had complete building plans of their area of responsibility. Meaning, if a fire was happening on a particular building, they can instantly look at the floor plans of the building and map out a strategy to fight a fire.

These are capabilities that our fire departments do not have. Actually if they coordinated with the Office of the Building Officials (OBO), they could be more prepared for conflagrations in the future. But as of the present moment, we should go back to the drawing boards and rethink our disaster preparedness plans or programs. This week, I had Super Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox Jr. on my TV show and in the year 2004 he prepared a study by JICA on the nation’s preparedness in handling earthquakes and natural disasters. It is time for the P-Noy gov’t to listen to what Palafox says about how unprepared we are and what we ought to do about the situation.

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For   e-mail responses to this article, write to vsbobita@mozcom.com or vsbobita@gmail.com. His columns can be accessed through http://www.philstar.com.

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