The earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan on Friday were natural disasters of epic proportions that left the country to cope with not one but two huge challenges. Many thousands perished under the towering waters that swept ashore after the first temblor and wiped away dozens of coastal villages. In their wake, millions more were stranded without electricity, drinking water, food or shelter, and communications with the rest of the country have been virtually cut off.
Compounding the humanitarian crisis is the specter of an environmental catastrophe stemming from the potential meltdown of one or more of three nuclear reactors at an electrical generating plant. The plant's operators have been attempting to bring down the temperatures inside two of the damaged reactors' cores with seawater after the tsunami disabled the complex's cooling system, but explosions inside the reactor housings on Saturday and Monday suggest the effort may not be working.
Confronted with the twin trials of getting help to tens of thousands of people who remain beyond the reach of rescuers and containing a potential environmental catastrophe, the Japanese have reacted with awe-inspiring discipline and resilience. There has been virtually no looting or large-scale public disorder in the wake of the tragedy, and the new government that took office two years ago appears to retain the public's confidence. Authorities have promised a massive relief effort to cope with the destruction, whose cost is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
But the country has sustained a profound shock, both materially — in the form of homes, businesses and critical infrastructure wiped away by the raging waters — and psychologically, in terms of families who have lost loved ones and whose lives will never be the same. As the only country ever to have experienced the horror of an atomic attack, Japan is also uniquely sensitive to the danger of radioactive contamination and its long-term impact on people and the environment. Authorities there describe the situation as the worst the country has encountered since the final days of World War II.
Because Japan lies in a region prone to earthquakes, it was forced to develop building and engineering construction codes that are among the world's most stringent in an attempt to limit the kind of widespread destruction many other countries have suffered. Yet the double whammy of devastation delivered by the largest quake in the nation's recorded history and the subsequent tsunami showed that even the best-laid plans are no guarantee against nature's wrath. The tsunami's 30-foot wall of water defeated not only the primary safeguards built into the country's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant but all its backup systems as well.
As one of Japan's closest allies and trading partners, the U.S. has a special obligation to do everything it can to help ease the suffering of the earthquake's survivors and stem the release of damaging radioactive particles from the damaged nuclear complex. U.S. ships headed toward the disaster zone detected radioactive debris as far as 100 miles offshore. Even if workers manage to prevent a total meltdown in the reactor cores, it may be weeks or months before the leaking facility is permanently sealed.
Japan, which so often has been at the forefront of humanitarian relief efforts in other parts of the world, now finds itself in desperate need of help from the international community. The world must be equally generous in its response.