Friday, March 18, 2011

Slobber And Spittle: What A Disaster Really Means

Slobber And Spittle: What A Disaster Really Means

The BBC has a Flash graphic of the recent earthquake near Sendai, Japan, and the aftershocks over the past week. This is a screenshot of one hour on the following day:
Image credit: Screenshot of this BBC video by Cujo359

[click on the graphic to enlarge]

That's two aftershocks of more than magnitude six on the Richter scale. Any earthquake above six is likely to be a bad day. The Nisqually Quake, which happened here in the Puget Sound region, was a 6.8, and it managed to do a lot of damage to old buildings despite being more than ten miles from the nearest city.

Don't forget, this is just one hour of one day. The blobs that look like nicotine stains are afterimages of previous quakes. By the end of the week, the graphic looks like an ancient chain smoker's ceiling.

Disaster management on this scale is rather like being an invading army, minus most of the weaponry. To be successful, an invader has to assume that there will be nothing of use in whatever territory it conquers. The U.S. Army has a whole command dedicated to figuring out the logistics of such things, because, as they put it, prior planning prevents poor performance. They literally figure things down to how much to give a soldier to take with him each day. They have to.

When you don't do that you can find yourself on the Russian front without your coat.

After a disaster like this, nothing much works. Roads and rail lines are broken, which means that even if an airport survives the shock, it will soon run out of fuel and other things it needs to operate. Electricity and fresh water are almost entirely gone in many areas, which means that there are lots of survivors whose long term chances aren't good. Because electricity is gone, nearly all forms of modern communication will be gone. Communication, if it can be done at all, will likely have to be done by messenger at first, at least until folks can set up radios or re-establish phone lines.

Many places will have backup power supplies - generators, uninterruptible power supplies, and the like, but after a time the fuel will be gone and the batteries will be dead. Until transportation is restored, the fuel can't be replaced, and the batteries can't be recharged until either that happens or electrical service is restored.
Caption: The Japanese city of Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit when a powerful tsunami swept ashore on March 11, 2011. When the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired the bottom image three days later, on March 14, water still inundated the city. The top image, from August 8, 2008, shows water levels under normal circumstances.

Water is dark blue in this false-color image. Plant-covered land is red, exposed earth is tan, and the city is silver. Standing water is most evident in the flat, open places that were once fields. The most extensive flooding is around the Matsushima Air Base in the lower left corner of the image. According to news reports, several airplanes were damaged in the tsunami. The neighborhoods immediately around the airstrip are also flooded.

Dark blue fills in the spaces between buildings in sections of Ishinomaki near the harbor in the center of the image and by the river in the upper right. These areas are probably flooded. Survivors in parts of Ishinomaki were being rescued in boats, reported CNN. The large image shows additional flooding near Ishinomaki and farther south in Sendai.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team (viaFlickr

Caption: An M1097 High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) carrying a shelter for electronic equipment. The US Army places these all over the battlefield to provide communications between the various headquarters and logistical units. They also may contain systems that are used to analyze and organize army assets, and the status of a battle and the friendly and enemy units involved.

Disaster relief efforts can often have similar communications needs, at least in the short term.

Image credit: Harold Hansen/Wikimedia

Invading armies bring their own communications systems these days. They do that because, even assuming they've brought enough supplies, without communications you can't get them where they need to be. Even dropping supplies by air, as limited a help as that is in practice, requires that you know where they are needed most. That requires both communications, analysis, and coordination. In a disaster, that means that there have to be disaster management specialists who can, and do, communicate with the appropriate experts in the technologies and systems affected, and with the people who need what those systems normally provide.

Another thing that most modern armies are used to is the idea that they will lose some of their support assets, whether through accident, disaster, or hostile action. That’s another thing that Japanese emergency workers are having to deal with, thanks to all those aftershocks.

That's a small taste of what it can be like in such a situation. The Japanese have a reputation for being methodical, but as we've seen, that isn't always true in practice. If they haven't thought things through down to a level similar to what the Army has, then they're making some of it up as they go along.

We're used to a world where you can talk just about anywhere on a cell phone. If that doesn't work, there's a land line or the Internet. The electricity works, or it's out for just a short time, and we can just hop in the car and go down to the store to get what we need. In and around Sendai right now, none of that is true.

Just something to keep in mind while you think about those people trying to deal with the reactor problems, and rescue people. I've encountered accusations of coverups and such about the reactor problems already. It's possible there really have been some, but it's also possible that a lot of the confusion, particularly in the early going, had to do with lack of communications and lack of planning.

Considering the scale of this disaster, they could be spending a long time catching up.

UPDATE: Added the picture and caption of the HMMWV and electronics shelter. Vehicles like this are a vital part of any modern army, because without them, those in charge of a war will have a very limited idea of how it's going.

UPDATE 2: Added the paragraph about how armies are used to planning for their stuff being destroyed, to make it consistent with the FireDogLake edition.
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