Catastrophe in Japan

January 18, 1995

The devastating earthquake near Kobe yesterday showed that the Japanese know less about earthquakes than they had thought. This is bad news for others in highly developed areas prone to earthquakes, particularly California and Italy, because the Japanese probably know more than anyone else.

Measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, the Kobe quake had a known death toll yesterday of 1,800 and climbing, 1,000 missing, more than 6,000 injured and 70,000 displaced from more than 8,000 damaged or destroyed buildings. Electricity, gas and telephone service were out.

This compares with the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, which was 7.1 in on the Richter scale with a death toll of 63 and a cost of $5.9 billion. The initial damage-repair estimates for this temblor: $10 billion to $20 billion.

Kobe, a city of 1.4 million people, is south and west of where Japan expects the earthquakes to hit. But the roads and buildings are engineered to withstand better than 8.0 on the Richter scale. Yet the toppling of elevated highways was more dramatic even than the collapsed freeway in Oakland of six years ago. Modern, reinforced, buildings collapsed along with the old wooden structures that went up in flames.

President Clinton was right to offer American assistance. The chances are that the U. S. has more to learn than to teach. Japan knows itself to be vulnerable, and having had at least five earthquakes in the 20th century measuring 8.0 or more on the Richter scale, expects at least that many in the 21st century. Yet what is in effect a secondary quake near a secondary Japanese city provided this enormous damage and suffering.

The Japanese have the sympathy of the world in this catastrophe. They probably also have the best emergency services and public education on living through earthquakes.

What the Japanese do not have is any insurance against this happening again, soon, and worse. No country does. But Japan, California and Italy know a little better than elsewhere that it is coming and that they ought to be as prepared as possible.

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