The World Responds to Japan’s Agony

March 14, 2011

The magnitude 8.9 earthquake, 6 miles down in the Japan Trench and 130 kms (81 miles) off Japan’s northeast coast, triggered a tsunami that devastated cities and towns over a wide area. Pictures of the onrushing waves, piling up cars boats, houses and other debris like so many toys, circulated around the globe at almost the same time they were occurring and continue to do so.

While most of the IJ’s coverage focuses on the economic cost and the impact on the insurance industry [if this isn’t the “big event” that will raise reinsurance premiums, nothing will], the sheer scope of the tragedy extends beyond the economic sphere.

A natural disaster of such nearly unprecedented power should remind us that, although man may rule the planet, he does not control it. As Japan’s Prime Minister stated, the last disaster of such magnitude to strike Japan was the Second World War. That took place over 4 years. The earthquake/tsunami did even more damage, albeit in a limited area, in about 20 minutes.

Japan is one of the most advanced and most “modern” countries in the world. It’s well aware that it sits along four fault lines. That’s why its building codes worked extremely well in limiting damage from the earthquake.

What they couldn’t limit was the irresistible force of billions of gallons of water suddenly displaced by an estimated one meter (3.3 feet) along 400 to 500 kms (250 to 312 miles) of fault line.

That something as common as water can be so destructive doesn’t surprise the scientific community, but it’s not a fact the average person thinks about. Yet, one quart/liter, of water weighs a kilo – 2.2 pounds – a cubic meter/yard weighs 1000 kgs, i.e. more than a ton. Its force when moving at more than 50 kmh (app 32 mph) is irresistible. When billions of cubic meters/yards are involved everything in its path is destroyed.

A catastrophe of this scope is shared by everybody. All of us are rather forcefully reminded that natural catastrophes can strike anywhere, anytime. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, even major fires are facts of life. They strike blindly without regard to the rich, the poor, the prepared and the unprepared.

Across the world people expressed their solidarity with the Japanese people in various ways. Spectators and players at Europe’s football (soccer) and rugby matches observed a minute of silence before play began. The U.S. Navy ordered emergency supplies and rescue teams to help the Japanese. Governments around the world offered aid and relief, including the Chinese and the Russians, with whom Japan is often at odds over various disputed matters.

Those expressions of solidarity are a somewhat hopeful sign that even the fractious constituencies that make up the world’s people and governments can come together when a major disaster strikes.

While the insurance industry must remain concerned with the losses, which are after all its primary reason for existing, it doesn’t mean that its people are focused solely on how big the claims will be. On the contrary, the industry is perhaps more conscious than any other of nature’s violent potential. Expressions of solidarity and support came quickly from the industry – from Lloyd’s; from Swiss Re and others.

These are the people whose function is to pick up the broken pieces, and make their Japanese clients as whole as possible after the disaster. They cannot bring back those who died, but they can compensate the survivors for the property losses and the casualties.

They will do so, but sometimes, perhaps in this case, there are too many pieces – too much has been lost. In the face of such costly disasters, and the increasing threats of worse to come from the changing climate and rising seas, even the industry’s wealth and expertise may not be enough.

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