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Japan prepared well for tsunami

By Andrew Moore, Special to CNN
  • Andrew Moore was tsunami researcher in Japan, says nation very prepared for disaster
  • He says high-tech early warning system buys about 10 seconds for the well-wired population
  • Deep bays on coast funnel waves to towns; 1896 quake killed more than 10,000, he says
  • Moore: This event will help show what works, what doesn't in earthquake preparation

Editor's note: Andrew Moore is an assistant professor of Geology at Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana. He lectures on geologic hazards and how societies deal with natural disaster risk

(CNN) -- Like many around the world, I sit transfixed by the images coming this morning from northern Japan, where a devastating earthquake and tsunami have already claimed hundreds of lives. It has a special resonance for me because I lived in Sendai, in the Tohoku region, from 1999 to 2001, working in a Japanese research laboratory dedicated to the study and control of natural disasters. I was a tsunami researcher in that lab.

Japan is arguably the most disaster-aware nation in the world, and has spent several decades developing mitigation strategies for a variety of hazards, including earthquakes and tsunamis. The area struck by this event is really where such studies began, and as a result, it represents the state of the art in readiness for earthquake and tsunami disasters.

The earthquake early warning system there is unparalleled. In place only since late 2007, the system effectively "outruns" the earthquake. Ideally, information about the shock is transmitted to people -- there are few populations as wired as Japan's -- even before the damaging earthquake waves arrive. At best, this system provides up to about 10 seconds of warning in affected regions, and of course works best farther from the epicenter.

Much of northern Japan remains without power, so it remains to be seen if the system, which was triggered, arrived in time to provide a useful warning.

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The coastline of northern Japan is a special one -- north of Sendai, the coast becomes steep, rocky and deeply embayed. It's a rugged coast, where small fishing towns sit at the backs of bays. As a result, wave and tsunami energy focuses on them.

An 1896 tsunami killed over 10,000 people in these villages, in some cases eradicating entire towns. In part because of that event, Japan's northern coastline is perhaps the best protected area in the world against tsunamis. Ten-meter high walls defend many towns. Road signs mark the beginning and end of inundation areas determined as such by sophisticated computer simulations. Evacuation routes are well-signed, and vertical evacuation is available in areas distant from high ground. Green belts designed to dissipate tsunami energy line most of the coast.

In truth, one of the first scientific studies of a tsunami happened here. After the 1896 event, a tsunami survey was commissioned by the government, and a report written -- still available today -- that laid out what these first researchers felt helped people survive. The evacuation routes and coastal greenbelts date from this early study, as does perhaps the earliest tsunami public education program: The Japanese government commissioned the carving of several stone monuments describing the event and had them placed throughout the affected area.

In short, the northern coast of Japan represents the best that's out there right now to help detect and survive earthquakes and tsunamis. Much of this technology is relatively new: The concrete barriers are mostly from the mid 1980s, and the road signs were put in place more recently, as has the concept of vertical evacuation -- building tall tsunami resistant structures in low-lying areas.

So, as this disaster plays out, and as we wait to hear if friends and old neighbors are OK, I think the larger question we'll want to ask is: Do the measures we've put in place over the last 100 years work?

This event is the first real test we'll see for all of the various technologies we use to protect people in tsunamis. Some of them probably worked well, and others appear to have failed -- determining which will be part of the recovery effort.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Moore.

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