Buildings in Japan withstood the earthquake well, but were no match for the tsunami that ensued

If this earthquake had hit anywhere else in the world, the numbers of dead would have been counted in millions. “The buildings performed fantastically, considering the magnitude of this earthquake, as there were no building collapses in Tokyo,” says Ahmad Rahimian, a seismic expert at structural engineer WSP Cantor Seinuk. “It’s a testament to advanced structural engineering and strict Japanese building codes.”

The same cannot be said about the tsunami. Possible protection includes early warning systems, evacuation procedures, tsunami-resistant refuge buildings and sea defences. These measures exist in Japan but weren’t up to this wave. According to Bill Keane, an expert in disaster management at engineer Clarke Bond, governments have to balance cost against the risk of these events happening. He says key questions include:

  • Had the cost of this disaster been invested in better tsunami defence systems, what difference would it have made?
  • Did people have enough time to escape and were there enough refuge buildings? 
  • What difference did existing sea defences make and how practical is it to beef these up?

The Japanese have a long history of learning from previous disasters and will almost certainly do so again - as should the rest of the world.