4 Japanese lessons for withstanding big storms

A worker looks over Tokyo's underground flood-control system. (Edogawa government office)

Few countries know bad weather like Japan, where typhoons hit regularly and winds can reach up to 94 mph, as they did earlier this year. And judging by some of the engineering and planning in the coastal mega-city of Tokyo, few countries are better prepared. As Hurricane Sandy makes landfall on the U.S. East Coast, here are some Japanese lessons for what is this week an American problem.

Hitachi residents line up for Kerosene after the March 2011 earthquake. (Kenichi Unaki/Yomiuri Shimbun via Associated Press )

1) Obsessive drilling. Schools and office buildings hold regular and rigorous emergency drills, with even the prime minister sometimes participating to underscore their importance. "Japan is arguably the world leader in readiness," a Time magazine reporter wrote last year, after the world watched in amazement as Japanese made orderly queues and followed widely observed protocol in response to the March earthquake and tsunami. In many ways, the country's storm preparedness is a byproduct of its efforts to prepare for earthquakes, which are both more difficult to foresee and potentially deadlier. Officials emphasize that all citizens, not just emergency response officials, must maintain constant readiness.

2) Massive underground drainage. The enormous, almost haunting chambers underneath the Tokyo district of Edogawa are meant to reduce flooding from storms by 80 percent. The facility, photos of which are provided by the Edogawa government, looks like something from a science fiction film set, and is even open to tourists. The runoff silos have ceilings 83 feet high and are connected by four miles of tunnels. Here's a map of the system:

(Edogawa government office)

 

Pipes connect the drainage system underneath Tokyo. (Edogawa government office)

3) Swaying skyscrapers. Many of Tokyo's buildings are designed to withstand powerful earthquakes, which also makes them well-suited to handle typhoon-strength winds. This allows them to sway, which is safer but alarming to watch. "Modern buildings – and Japan's addiction to concrete, means most tall buildings are very modern – are built with deep foundations, the most advanced supported by shock absorbers that allow the structure to move with the earth, rather than against it," the Guardian explained last year. This is in part a legacy of the country's devastation after a 1923 earthquake – the anniversary of which is now Disaster Prevention Day in Japan – and World War II. Because so many buildings are so new, unlike those in U.S. cities such as New York, they often boast newer technology, from the foundation to the elevator shafts. 

4) Fear. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Risk Research found that Japanese citizens were far more likely to be prepared for major storms – planning escape routes, bolstering such home improvements as roofs and drainage, and taking out insurance policies – if they reported that they were "fearful" or "very fearful" of such a storm, as many people did. Strikingly, the study found that this didn't correlate as strongly with people who had experienced more storms or storm damage in the past, meaning that fear itself seems to be driving their preparedness. I don't know how to compare the degree of fear of storms in Japan versus in the United States, but it's worth noting the anecdotal reports of East Coast city grocery stores selling out of wine but not staples.

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