Thursday, March 15, 2012

Two Earthquakes, One National Broadcaster

Two fairly large earthquakes struck Japan's eastern coast last night, a 6.8 temblor at 6:09 far off the coast of Hokkaido and a 6.1 temblor near to shore at 9:05. The earlier one released the greater energy (seven times as much, the Richter scale being logarithmic - correct me if I am wrong) but the latter one was the one causing damage and injuries. The latter one shook the bewillickers out of Tokyo, guaranteeing it would get better press. It even seems to have scared a 95 year-old woman to death, leading to an official count of one fatality.

The timing of the two quakes could not have been more apt for NHK. They gave the national broadcaster a chance to try out its new, hysterical style of delivering earthquakes and tsunami warnings during what are normally news time slots.

Whereas in the past bulletins on tsunami risks were delivered in a flat, informative tone and were checked first with the Japan Meteorological Agency, the new, post-3/11 mode of operation is to, frankly speaking, go nuts as soon as possible, warning viewers in staccato, barking tones to be prepared to run to higher ground even before the JMA has made any predictions.

The new style, which NHK previewed only last week as a part of its pre-3/11 build up is in answer to criticism of the broadcast community for failing to instill sufficient panic in the residents of the Tohoku last year, and in particular for following in lockstep the predictions of the JMA as to the size of the incoming waves. The initial JMA predictions were for a 3 meter wave, then a 6 meter, then finally a greater than 10 meter wave for many parts of the Tohoku (the highest crest was an astonishing 39.7 meters at Miyako City - J).

It is thought that the initial, more conservative warnings misled some early evacuees to seek shelter at lower elevations, resulting in them being swept away when the very much higher surge arrived. In at least three instances, large groups gathered on a raised area or in a tsunami shelter that ended up being far too low, one of which is the now iconic Minami Sanriku Disaster Center.

Whether delivering disaster warning messages in a voice that it both louder and filled with more tension will save lives is a question. Certainly last night, when the tsunami from the first earthquake rolled in at a less-than-astonishing 10 centimeters in height, the new urgent warnings seemed somewhat silly. Then again, with the aging of the population, startling semi-somnolent viewers and listeners may be just what is necessary to get folks off their aging keisters and way up on higher ground.

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