I was recently in Sendai, Japan, known most recently as the epicenter of the 2011 Sendai earthquake and devastating tsunami that washed away or damaged much of northern Japan’s coastal infrastructure. Sendai is about 20 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. The surrounding area is still contaminated with low levels of radioactive Iodine and Cesium released from the damaged plant, according to the US Department of Energy and other sources. A plume of radioactive water has been spreading from that reactor ever since, and is destined to start washing ashore in California by 2014. The level of radioactivity near the damaged reactor is high enough to increase the risk of cancer for thousands of people, though experts debate by how much. As of the time of this writing, no cancers associated with radiation exposure have been reported.
What impressed me was that the residents of Sendai seemed to be taking the disaster in stride. Oh, don’t get me wrong - there was sadness at the thousands of deaths associated with the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor failure. There was anger at the government, and passion about the future of nuclear power in Japan.
Sadness, anger, and political engagement are things I would expect after a major disaster. What I did not expect was an amazing fire drill.
I was visiting Sendai’s local university, Tohoku University. At about 3 PM, a bell rang and a long announcement in Japanese was broadcast throughout the building. Every person in the building calmly put down whatever they were doing, took their white or yellow hard hat off a hook by the door, lined up and walked out the front door of the building. An announcement in English soon followed. “Fire Alarm! There is a fire in Section 2 floor 2. All personnel are required to report to their stations.” Though I was told it was a drill, I left the building anyway and saw a lawn filled with people in hard hats, arranged in neat rows and columns. There were a couple of holes in the grid of people. A man with a clipboard instructed a person at the end of the row to go back into the building to retrieve a missing person. After the fire drill captains accounted for everyone, they started a drill to teach every person how to use fire extinguishers and other pieces of equipment.
The most impressive thing to me was that the space existed on the campus to do the drill. The people grid was on a patch of lawn and road right in front of the building. I had noticed the open space - and potential bonanza of parking spaces - when we arrived and were instructed to park our car about a block from the building. Everywhere I went in Japan I saw signs designating spaces for various emergency functions - here a gathering point, there a helicopter landing, and yonder the triage station. I never saw a car parked in one of those empty spaces. (As a New Yorker I found myself snapping pictures of empty parking spaces in prime locations till I realized how common they were.)
I came home wondering what the US could do to install competent safety protocols. Looking at videos of the 201 tsunami, it is amazing that more people weren’t killed. Buildings and businesses recovered quickly, though the economy remains depressed.
I wonder if anyone will think the white hard hats were as stylish as I found them.