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Congressional Quarterly: Learning by Example

Author: Tim Starks, CQ.com
March 28, 2011

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Before a historic earthquake-tsunami combination killed thousands and triggered a partial meltdown at one of its nuclear power plants, Japan won a reputation around the world for being extraordinarily prepared for disaster. In the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi, Washington must now evaluate if the United States could do any better than – or even as well as – Japan in similar circumstance.

Before a historic earthquake-tsunami combination killed thousands and triggered a partial meltdown at one of its nuclear power plants, Japan had won a reputation around the world for being extraordinarily girded for disaster. Regularly rocked by massive earthquakes, the island nation's 1995 Kobe quake was only one recent deadly reminder of the costs of not being ready.

But a series of shortcomings in Japan's response to the current catastrophe has eroded its disaster-preparedness reputation, even among critics who acknowledge that virtually any country would have struggled to contain the damage. In Washington, the Japanese disaster and Tokyo's response has turned the attention of emergency responders, disaster experts, lawmakers and the president inward, as they contemplate whether the United States could do any better than — or even as well as — Japan has.

The answer is, for the most part, no. While there is broad agreement that the U.S. disaster-response system has improved overall since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, it has yet to be tested on a giant scale. And experts say any number of shortcomings remain, from management problems at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to inadequate preparation for evacuating children, the elderly and the disabled.

“If you ask me if we, as a nation, are better prepared than we were 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even five years ago, then the answer to that is yes. Of course, we are,” Richard Skinner, former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on March 17. “But if you ask: Are we as prepared as we can be or should be? Then the answer to that is no, we're not.”

The fear caused by radiation leaks in Japan will inevitably lead U.S. policy makers into touchy political issues, such as siting of nuclear plants, the size of mass evacuation zones, the allocation of radio spectrum and the competence of the administration.

The scope of what's happened in Japan far exceeds that of the last U.S. catastrophic disaster. Even excluding damage from the nuclear crisis, Japan's government estimated the damage at $309 billion — four times the cost of Katrina. Yet the government response to the hurricane's aftermath was so bungled that the executive branch rewrote its national response blueprint and Congress passed legislation overhauling FEMA.

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