Lessons from Japan

Posted March 14, 2011, at 6:41 p.m.

As we watch the disasters unfold in Japan, we in Maine are reminded of several lessons on preparedness.

The secondary effects of disasters are often more lethal than the initial event. For instance, the Japanese earthquake caused deadly tsunamis, widespread electric power outages and nuclear power plant meltdowns.

Although on a much smaller scale, the most common cause of death and hospitalization from the January 1998 Maine ice storm was not from falling ice or from people slipping on the ice, but from carbon monoxide poisoning because of generators inappropriately placed during the storm-related electric power outages.

No matter how well-prepared governments and nonprofit institutions are for a disaster, people still need to survive on their own for a few hours or days. The collapse of the transportation and electric power infrastructures seen in Japan means thousands are living on their own until they can be reached and rescued. Similarly, in Maine, during severe snowstorms people often have to live at home without power for a significant period of time.

Communication is critical during disasters. According to news reports, Japanese people are finding their family members through Twitter and texting or by calling common contacts in other parts of the country. Here at home, multiple modes of communication also were key to evacuating parts of Fort Kent and other communities that were severely flooded in the spring of 2008.

Disasters can be unpredictable. We have seen numerous backup cooling systems for some of Japan’s nuclear power plants fail. With five operating nuclear power plants in New England and one very close by in New Brunswick, we in Maine are not immune from similar disasters.

Although the chances of an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude seen in Japan seem highly unlikely, the largest earthquake in modern times in New England was one registering 6.3 on the Richter Scale in Cape Ann, Mass., in 1755, within just a few miles of two modern-day nuclear power plants (Seabrook and Pilgrim).

Those who live with disabilities, are elderly or are very young are disproportionately affected by disasters. We see Japanese earthquake survivors carrying children and seniors on their backs to safety. Likewise, we remember the challenges in evacuating elderly housing complexes in Guilford and Canton during the Maine floods of 1987.

We must be prepared. Government, Red Cross and other institutions must be ready. In Japan, government helicopters are transporting victims to safety. Red Cross volunteers are caring for those who have been evacuated to shelters. Hospitals are converted to emergency centers and continue to treat the injured.

Individuals, like institutions, must also be prepared. Millions of Japanese received earthquake and tsunami warnings on their cell phones, giving them precious moments to flee to safety. Many of them have preparedness kits, enabling them to live independently until rescuers arrive.

What can we as individuals in Maine do in response to these preparedness reminders? Four basic steps are critical.

Get a kit. Do your car and home have sufficient food, water and necessary medicines to live for at least three days? Potassium iodide to protect the thyroids especially of our children in case of certain nuclear disasters may be considered for an extended kit.

Make a plan. Do you know how to quickly evacuate from your neighborhood or town? Do your family members know how to communicate with each other in an emergency, including using social media or texting and using the same distant contact to leave messages with in case local phone systems are down?

Be informed. Do you know about the common emergencies found in your area, what to expect, and what to do? In Maine, this means being informed about snowstorms, ice storms and floods. Nowadays, this also means knowing about heat waves, tornadoes, pandemics and even nuclear events.

Help others. Have you connected with elderly or disabled family members and friends and incorporated them into your emergency plans? Doing so can help save lives, especially of those who are more vulnerable to the devastation of disasters.

Preparedness works, in Japan and in Maine. But we must all do our part.

Dora Anne Mills is Maine’s former public health director. Learn more at www.ready.gov or www.maineprepares.org or www.redcross.org.

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