A recipe for disaster prevention

WE were ready to be rocked and roiled. But with a Nintendo DS console slung around our necks, it felt very much like a game. So like a silly schoolgirl trying to be kawaii, I let out a scream when the elevator we were in ­suddenly went dark and came to a halt. This was supposed to be a simu­lation of being in a lift descending to a train station when an earthquake of at least six on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale hits Tokyo.

My group - mostly editors who were attending the Asia News Network (ANN) annual meeting in Tokyo - was at the city's Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park to learn about Japan's preparedness for an earthquake in the metropolitan area.

After exiting the elevator, our 72-hours-after-earthquake tour be­­gan in earnest. We were told to walk down a dimly lit maintenance corridor to get to the outside.

Once "out", we were in a ­damaged area of the city. It was another ­simulation of burning shops, fallen telephone poles, partially collapsed buildings and damaged sidewalks.

Our goal was to reach an ­evacuation area and along the way, guided by a quiz on our game ­consoles, we learned what to do and look out for to keep safe.

The idea was to survive for 72 hours, which is how long disaster victims must stay alive before help arrives. The experience was interesting and rather fun. But it wasn't till we reached Cinema Station that the enormity of a real disaster hit me.

This was a three-minute­ com­­­­­pu­ter-generated video of an earthquake of seismic intensity of 7.3 right under Tokyo on a winter's night and its likely devastation: 415,000 buildings on fire, another 175,000 completely collapsed, eight million people ­unable to return home.

The death toll: 23,000.

A day after our visit, the earthquake in Nepal happened. As with many disasters, it was hard to know the full impact immediately, ­especially in such a mountainous region. It will take weeks if not months before we know the final death toll and the cost of damage to property in Nepal and neighbouring countries, but already the numbers are horrific.

From survivors' terrifying ac­­counts, I know my little Nintendo-led experience of a simulated earthquake was just that: pared-down make-believe that was a mere walk in the park.

Yet, it was enormously ­educational and insightful. One gallery showed how to set up emergency shelters, toilets and DIY first aid using ­common materials like cardboard boxes, plastic bags and bottles.

All that made me realise how important it is for a nation to be ready for disasters in this day and age. Whether it is wild weather, unstable tectonic plates or terror attacks, few places on earth are safe anymore and we in Malaysia should take heed. We always tell ourselves we are a lucky nation because we are not on the deadly Ring of Fire circling the Pacific Ocean basin.

Japan, however, is strung over the meeting point of at least four of the world's tectonic plates, which is why it acknowledges it is "a disaster-prone country".

Its disaster management plan reflects that, covering all aspects of countermeasures - from prevention, preparedness and response to reco­very - for earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and floods, volcanic eruptions, massive snowfalls, large-scale fires, nuclear and aviation accidents.

And that's not even the full list.

The Rinkai Park is but one of three disaster management base facilities in Tokyo. Not only that, since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Tokyo, the government has been building "refuge parks" that "are cleverly disguised survival bunkers for the masses", according to a Guardian report.

These parks are equipped with solar-powered charging stations for electric bicycles and phones, ­benches that can be used as cooking stoves, and manholes as emergency toilets.

Under the parks are "water reservoirs and storehouses containing enough food to allow entire districts to survive the critically important first 72 hours following a disaster," adds the report. The ­government also puts a lot of effort into public education and awareness.

Responsibility also lies with the people. Corporations are required to store rations on their premises and even hard hats. (Yomiuri Shimbun, which hosted the ANN meeting, has storerooms of such hard hats.)

There is much to learn from the Japanese in terms of disaster ­prevention.

At first I thought it wrong to use the word "prevention" because it's impossible to stop an earthquake or volcanic eruption. Then I figured when something like that occurs, it only becomes a disaster when there is widespread damage and high casualties and it is a responsible ­government's duty to do all it can to try to prevent or limit that.

My heart actually quaked when we were told there is a 70 per cent probabi­lity of a magnitude seven earthquake occurring in the Kanto (meaning Tokyo) area in the next 30 years. That's because I have plans to return to Tokyo for a holiday with my BFFs in September.

I am deeply impressed and ­slightly comforted by Japan's immense state of readiness and preparation, but in all honesty, no one knows how well it will stand up to Mother Nature's rage.

While lunching on the 32nd floor of the Yomiuri Shimbun swanky new headquarters, we were assured the building was earthquake-resistant.

Hmmm, that's like watches which are water resistant but not waterproof, isn't it? And despite years of monitoring and preparing, there was no stopping the disaster of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that claimed 18,490 lives and crippled a nuclear power plant.

But what to do?

Do I cancel my September plans and just stay home? I don't think so. I will, ­however, make sure I find out the ­nearest refuge park to my hotel.