The Japanese Earthquake / Tsunami Disaster: Some Lessons…So Far (Part I)

I haven’t written an article this big in some time so this will be posted in two parts; the first this week and mid-week next week I’ll post Part II. 

Disasters of any kind, provide us an opportunity to learn.  They provide us time to investigate and reflect on what happened, what caused the situation, our initial responses during the entire situation and a chance to make our plans and processes stronger.  The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami have done just that. 

            The situation itself was captured ‘live’ on TV cameras and personal cameras alike, providing us a plethora of materials to review and learn from.  The situation has given allot of countries, communities and corporations time to think about what they would do as a result of a disaster of this scale – a scale that is quite large and has far reaching impacts. 

            The following section provides just a small snapshot of things so far.  I’m sure over the coming days, weeks, months and years, much more will be learned by all of us.  

1)    Social Media Availability – I’ve noted this in a prior posting but I’ve come across the reference more than once to twice now.  With so many people using the sites, they may or may not be readily available for use by corporations during a disaster.  It’s one thing for the public to be searching the sites for information but it’s another for those who are using social media to get information out to families, employees, and crisis teams.  Corporations may want to review their usage of the sites and choose the correct path that will help them and not hinder their abilities to communicate.  Phones were down and social media sites were sluggish at best for some time.  Corporations will have to have a multi-disciplinary strategy to deal with communications and don’t focus on just one singe strategy like phones or social media; but a combination of many disciplines if the right messages are to get out.

2)    One Thing Leads to Another – The earthquake lead to a tsunami.  A tsunami lead to flooding.  Flooding lead to destruction of all kinds…and on and on.  Focusing on a single disaster situation (some will call it scenario) isn’t viable any longer.  A disaster has lasting impacts on other things: People, Places (facilities) and things (like telecom infrastructure, networks, processes etc).  It’s time for corporations to begin to think of combinations of disasters – or disaster triggers – that will cause them problems.  The simple flood situation may not cover all the scenarios anymore.  Japan proved that, as an earthquake wasn’t the only disaster they had to contend with.  A tsunami was a disaster they might have considered during planning but did they think to plan for earthquakes, tsunami’s and all the resulting situations that came out of those (like the nuclear disaster)?  Maybe, but probably not.  Single focus situations may not be viable anymore, at least for those corp’s with some level of maturity in their BCM/DR/ERM programs; they may need to ‘kick it up a notch’ if they are truly going to improve the level of readiness and response in their programs. 

3)    It Takes All Parties – It takes a coordinated effort of all parties within a corporation to get things done.  You don’t get a new service or product to market by thinking a single department will be able to execute all activities.  So why is it that some may think that only one area of a corporation can build a DR/BCM/ERM program?  They can’t.  Japan is proof of that.  It has taken the army, coast guard/navy, emergency responders, corporation staff (think the nuclear plant workers), the public and local authorities working together to respond to the situation.  All these groups must work together and communicate to get the desired results: finding and saving lives first and foremost.  Corporations must include all areas of the company – all departments – to help deliver a workable and usable program; leaving it just to one area, such as HR, IT or Risk Mgmt won’t cut it and won’t create a program that meets everyone’s needs. 

4)    Transparency – You can’t hide what is going on in a situation.  If people don’t believe you, then they will begin to develop rumour and conjecture with or without you providing information on the status of the situation.  For a time it seemed as though all was well at the Fukishima nuclear plant but the opposite was true.  The public was being told there was not danger but of course, that proved to be false as the things began to unfold and others got involved.  We found that things were much worse that they appeared.  As a result, stock prices went down in the company operating the plant and we found that there were some workers that had lost their lives.  Who knows what long term effects are might be in store for those that have stayed in the plant to help keep some level of control and resolve the issues.  Be open and honest with the situation so that the right actions or responses can be put in place immediately.  Based on the information provided initially, it seems the evacuation zone should have been larger than what was originally called for.  Be transparent and communicate the situation; hiding it won’t help you in the long run. 

5)    Outside Assistance – Unlike the Kobe earthquake a few years ago, Japan asked and accepted help from others this time.  No corporation or community can do everything alone in a disaster; if there is the offer of assistance then it might be wise to take it.  This was a lesson learned by the Japanese themselves, who managed the Kobe earthquake alone and didn’t accept offers of assistance.  But the Japanese people complained that this took response teams too long to help provide services and restore power.  This time, many countries were allowed to enter and help with the various disaster response activities required.  It helped restore power to some areas quicker, get suppliers to some other quicker and helped overall with the response.  Consider this tactic when your corporations has a disasters.  When we personally have crises and disasters, we usually accept help from our friends and family; so why not for corporations?  See if this is a possibility for you. 

6)    Panic Isn’t Rampant – The Japanese are known for their demeanour and level of calmness under stress.  This disaster showed the world that panic isn’t always present when a disaster strikes.  Yes, it was probably was at the time of the disaster but during the post-disaster period the citizenry showed their resilience and ability to adapt to the situation.  Communities rallied to help find survivors – and the dead – and they didn’t riot in the streets looking for material gains (i.e. stereos, food, water etc).  They managed somehow, to stay calm and queued at stores to buy basic items (if available) and didn’t push and shove causing fights.  This would only have caused more issues for people and especially those trying to respond and help with the disaster response teams.  It proved that with education and awareness, people can respond to disaster in a meaningful and managed manner. 

7)    Shortage of Basics – In many situations, people aren’t fully prepared to respond to a disaster.  With the world economic conditions they way they are (though fluidly changing at the moment) many people don’t keep additional stock of basics at home to address situations like this (I’m aware this was an extreme case.).  As a result, the basics like water wasn’t available for citizens; not at stores and not at home.  It is good advice and proactive to keep a few extra bottles of water at home so that they can be drawn upon in times of need.  As a result of people not being prepared at home (those who didn’t lose their homes of course), there was allot of panic shopping and store shelves emptied out all across Japan.  If people were more educated on home preparedness, this might not have happened and stores may have had stock to last for everyone because some level of home preparedness was in place. 

This end Part I of the lessons learned; next week I’ll post Part II, which has some other learnings and some comments that may not be some easily identified as these.

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4 thoughts on “The Japanese Earthquake / Tsunami Disaster: Some Lessons…So Far (Part I)

  1. Pingback: … learning from other people’s learning :: Contemplating …

  2. Pingback: … case study of resilience (adaptation and culture) in the real world :: Contemplating …

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