Megadisasters: What We Learned from the Japanese Tsunami

It killed 18,571 people and injured 6,150. More than 2,600 people are missing. It damaged or destroyed 1.14 million buildings. The economic damage was an estimated $210 billion.

If any natural catastrophe deserves the term "megadisaster," the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 certainly qualifies. Not only did the 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan shake the country for minutes, but it created a tsunami that struck over 400 miles of the Japanese coast. (See video of the tsunami below)

As a new report from the World Bank and the Japanese government notes, it was the first disaster that included "an earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear power plant accident, a power supply failure and a large-scale disruption of supply chains."

In Learning from Megadisasters, the report's authors noted that given the prospect of more extreme weather events, governments and other institutions need to shift from a "tradition of response to a culture of prevention and resilience."

Well-prepared business continuity plans proved extremely valuable in the wake of the Japanese disaster, the report found. Between 80% and 90% of medium- and large-sized companies said their BCPs had been effective during the response and recovery phase.

Due to the disaster, "the entire manufacturing sector in Japan and some industries abroad were forced to suspend production," the report noted. While Japanese responded well to the crisis, the report stated that "the need remains to create more resilient supply chains both inside and outside Japan."

In their IndustryWeek article, "How to Build an Anticipatory Supply Chain," Kelly Marchese and Bill Lam wrote that Toyota (IW 1000/8) took that lesson to heart after the tsunami.

"The company worked with more than 500 supplies to create greater visibility throughout a multi-tier supply network and to either spread production across multiple locations or maintain larger inventory buffers," they wrote. "Most strikingly, the automaker decided to reengineer many of its 4,000-5,000 vehicle components so that across different models, common parts could be used."

We can't prevent natural disasters, but effective planning and preparedness can do much to mitigate the effects of these disasters, the report notes. That is particularly important for developing nations, where there are plans for huge investments in infrastructure. Among the risk management lessons learned from the 2011 disaster and response:

Understand the nature and limitations of risk assessment. "Distributing hazard maps and issuing early warnings were not enough," the report found. The magnitude of the tsunami was underestimated, which may have led to people delaying their evacuation. "If local governments and community members had been more aware of [disaster response management] technologies and their margins of error, fewer lives might have been lost," the reported stated.

Coordination mechanisms on the ground should be agreed on before the fact. Poor coordination between various agencies was a problem, particularly for local governments with little experience working with other organizations on a large scale. The report noted, "As it turned out, coordination with international relief agencies and donors offering exceptional assistance was simply not up to the unprecedented task."

Vulnerable groups must be engaged, not just protected. "Understanding and meeting the challenges of the elderly, children and women, both during the emergency and in its aftermath, are priorities for effective postdisaster response," the report warned.

TAGS: Supply Chain
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