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Hinman Pulse

March 14, 2011

What does the future look like: 1- Current state of Catastrophes

by Shalva Marjanishvili

The recent series of disasters in Japan once again highlights the importance of the discussions we are having at Hinman about definitions of risk, reliability and safety. This blog, I hope, will become one in a series of blogs which I plan to write in order to highlight the importance of disaster management and to uncover the fundamental flaws in the current state of practice. The goal of this blog is to stimulate a discussion about current vulnerabilities and possible solutions.

It is unfortunate that current structural engineering state of practice lags behind the realities of the real world. Hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and fire are not new concepts for engineers, however when designing structures for the effects of the above-mentioned hazards a common engineering practice is to consider each hazard independently. The underlying assumption is that it is highly unlikely that one disaster will be closely followed by another sequentially. During the 20th century, the engineering community made large strides in designing structures to withstand known hazards, leading to improved reliability and safety of infrastructure. Improved reliability and safety in turn has supported population growth and increased prosperity. As witness to our success, it is common in developed nations to consider it unacceptable for a disaster to cause large scale devastation. However, the nature of disasters has proved otherwise.

It is unlikely that one extreme event will have catastrophic consequences on communities, because we know how to prepare for a single event. Instead, as experience shows, disasters are more typically comprised by one event followed by one or more other events, exposing the vulnerability of our design assumptions. The most recent examples of multiple disasters are Japan, Haiti, Chile, Indonesia, US.

Let’s examine what happened:

Japan (3/11/2011) was struck by a very powerful earthquake followed by a series of disasters leading to a large scale catastrophe. By 3/13/2011, I have identified at least eight sequential hazards (and counting):

  1. Earthquake.
  2. Tsunami triggered by an earthquake.
  3. High waters destroyed not only settlements but also farmland. This will result in shortage of food in Japan in near future.
  4. Accidental explosion followed by a large fire in refinery
  5. Nuclear reactor meltdown
  6. In a desperate attempt to cool down the nuclear reactor, the core is flooded with sea water. Hence releasing the radiation into the open sea
  7. A volcano in southern Japan resumed eruption
  8. This is not an isolated Japanese disaster, prevailing winds will bring nuclear fallout to the entire West Coast of the US, which among other things, will  contaminate air, water and food supply throughout the US.
  9. There are more to come

The question is how did one disaster (earthquake) result in a large scale catastrophe? Most of the experts give an obvious reason that the “earthquake was too large”. The real answer, however, can be uncovered by examining current events and actions in disaster management practice (Haiti, Indonesia, Chile, New Orleans, US).

In summary, the 21st century challenges are different from the 20th century problems and require a different approach. The solutions and practices that worked for us in the 20th century will not work in the future. So what does the future look like? This blog is series of blogs which I plan to write in an attempt to uncover obvious flaws in current state of disaster management - stay tuned for the next installment…..


Join the conversation


B. Bowman
March 18, 2011

Thanks for posting this series, it is very interesting.

Japanese exports is another industry that will be affected. People in San Francisco's Japan town have begun to question grocery store owners if imports will continue, and if agricultural goods are safe given the current potential for Nuclear fallout.


Shalva Marjanishvili
March 18, 2011

Tourism is another industry which will be affected in Japan, Hawaii, US West coast.


Shalva Marjanishvili
March 15, 2011

Update 3/15/2011: : Japanese stocks tumble Tokyo bourse at lows not seen since 1987 (http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2011/3/16/business/8274687&sec=business)



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