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By Colin Harrison
IBM Distinguished Engineer

On the afternoon of Friday March 11, 2011, I happened to be waiting at Tokyo’s Narita Airport to return to New York and so directly experienced the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan. Although the terminal buildings were bouncing around like an airplane in severe turbulence, there was no major damage. Japanese earthquake engineering is truly world class.

However Narita was some 300 km away from the epicenter and in northern Japan the earthquake was far more violent. Damage from the quake and tsunami in monetary terms was estimated by the World Bank at over $200 billion. But above all there was immense cost of lives with some 16,000 deaths and over 3,000 people still unaccounted for.

A year has now passed and many events are commemorating the Great East Japan Earthquake. As we ponder those losses, we should realize that restoring a society is always painful. But this occasion also provides an opportunity to overcome an unrecoverable past and move on to a new, more sustainable future. The incidence of natural disasters of all kinds – earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires, mud-slides, volcanic eruptions, and so forth – has shown an astonishing increase in the last fifty years. At the same time, societies are becoming increasingly urbanized, and vulnerability is increasing. So, now more than ever, it’s important for societies to make themselves more resilient.


IBM researchers at several labs worldwide are working on projects aimed at using science and technology to help make societies better prepared for disasters and better able to recover from them. A team in Yorktown Heights, NY, for instance, is focusing on information technology systems. It’s helping public and private organizations to deal with a spectrum of operational disruptions ranging from rare but massive events such as earthquakes to the daily but less challenging impacts such as road congestion, fog-closed airports and routiine ‘flu epidemics. My Research colleagues, Hideo Watanabe in Tokyo, Chung-sheng Li in New York, and I are now developing this vision into a research and development program.

After the March 11, 2011 earthquake I returned several times to connect IBM Japan to global resources that could be used to help IBM clients and other organizations recover from this disaster. During May through July I lived in the city of Sendai, which had experienced the full violence of the earthquake. The hotel in Sendai where I spent several months had moved about 23 centimeters on its flexible foundations during the earthquake. Sendai is a modern city with a population of about 1 million and it came to feel like home to me. It is on a coastal plain that rises into the central volcanic mountains.

I toured this area about three weeks after the earthquake and saw some of the worst affected areas. It was cold and snowing and the region was still very disrupted. Food and water were in short supply and gasoline and diesel fuel were unobtainable. There was plenty in the service stations, but there was no electricity to drive the pumps. Most businesses, including hotels, were closed, waiting for building inspections. The survivors had been moved into refugee camps in schools and sports centers and were living in small cardboard pens. Many went for weeks without being able to wash, which was an extreme suffering for Japanese people who are always very fastidious. We saw a group of volunteers building a temporary communal bathhouse in a tent using a large plastic fishing tank for the bath and heating the water outdoors in a 40 gallon oil drum over a large gas ring. It was snowing at the time.

To the north and east of Sendai, the Sanriku coastline has cliffs some 60-80 m high that are pierced by rivers draining the inland plain. These rivers have carved narrow valleys ending in bays. There are many small fishing villages along this coast. When the tsunami struck, the wall of water entered the bays and the steep valley walls acted like funnels—so the flood surged high and devastated the fishing villages.

South of Sendai, the coastline is low and flat. It is generally protected by a seawall. The tsunami easily overran these seawalls and, because the land is flat, it was able to penetrate much further inland than in the Sanriku valleys. Here it was much harder to escape, many tried to drive inland, but traffic jams make it impossible to out run the wave when it arrived. Some people were saved miraculously by climbing to the upper stories of school buildings or to rare outcroppings. Because the land was flat, the water took many days to drain back out. The land became degraded with salt and as a result agriculture will no longer be possible for several years until rain washes out the salt.

We spent a lot of time in the summer of 2011 working with Tohoku University to see if this flat coastal land could effectively be defended against future tsunamis and finally concluded that it was not possible. The city of Sendai therefore decided to discourage re-building of housing in this area, although it cannot prevent people from re-building their homes. To help the farmers, the city decided to build a large-scale plant for hydroponic farming.

I left Sendai at the end of July 2011 and by then much of the debris had been removed from the land and sorted into piles 10 m high and kilometers long. The land began to look ready for rebuilding and now began the great wait–waiting for the cities and the Prefecture to develop their plans, to discuss them with their citizens, and to reach a consensus, waiting for the central government to allocate a budget and to develop a process for receiving and approving re-construction proposals.

What has happened since March 2011?  This week I have been back in Sendai to re-visit the scenes of destruction. Visually, there is great improvement. Mountains of debris have been collected, sorted, and are being recycled or sent to landfills. Many millions of cubic meters of mud have been painfully extracted from houses that were flooded by tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world.

The reconstruction work is likely to take several years, during which time over a hundred thousand evacuees are living in minimal temporary accommodation.

IBM Japan has been helping with the recovery throughout Tohoku, the area of Japan most affected by the quake and tsunami. Immediately after the quake, we established an emergency task force and began offering our clients help in recovering their computer systems. Our people also assisted with the broader recovery efforts. Our work continues this year. On January 1, a Sendai-based IBM team was set up to help the prefecture government with the next stages of the recovery. IBM has also launched a Smarter Cities Challenge project in Sendai–sending a half dozen consultants there to help the city plan next steps. This is part of IBM’s global grant program for helping to make cities work better.

Recovery from disasters of this scale takes much time and effort, and, over time, human memory fades. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, people discovered long-forgotten stone markers in the Sanriku coastal valleys. These markers are hundreds of years old. They are inscribed with warnings not to build houses below the level of the markers. Japanese ancestors knew of the risks of major tsunamis, but over the centuries their descendants forgot or decided to take the risk. The commemorations this weekend will keep alive these recent events, but, eventually, the sense of urgency will fade. Japan and the rest of the countries in the world would be wise to consider the lesson offered by those old stone markers: prepare for the next disasters by making their societies more resilient—because disasters will surely come.

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