No country in the world has prepared itself for earthquakes and tsunamis more than Japan. Yet, the death toll continues to rise, estimated to reach well beyond 10,000. And a leading risk analysis firm estimates that property losses will total between $14 billion and $34 billion.
Japan’s 6,852 islands, comprising a land mass about the size of Montana, are located in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Five tectonic plates threaten the country with frequent and substantial earthquakes. Twenty-four temblors over 6.5 on the Richter scale have shaken Japan in the last century, 13 in the last decade (not counting the Sendai quakes).
The 1923 Kanto Earthquake, killing over 100,000 people, propelled Japanese leaders to take every precaution possible to avert a future disaster. Building codes include the most stringent seismic standards in the world. Sophisticated engineering allows tall buildings to flex during an earthquake. Dozens of seismic centers are wired into a warning system that will give residents at least fifteen seconds to take cover before a quake hits. The trains in the massive rail system automatically stop with the transmission of that warning signal to prevent derailment.
Earthquake awareness permeates the culture. Japan dedicates National Prevention Day to commemorate the 1923 quake and the 1995 Kobe Earthquake that killed over 6,000 people. The observance includes simulations and drills to train the population in earthquake safety. Most businesses and schools practice emergency procedures, Helmets, first-aid kits, local water storage facilities and disaster supplies equip the Japanese for the next quake.
Earthquakes off the coast usually spawn tsunamis. Japan has prepared for these as well. Six regional centers that command 180 seismic stations and 80 water-borne sensors monitor the earth’s activities 24 hours a day. At the first sign of a major quake, a warning signal is sent.
National media coordinates with the Japan Meteorological Agency to superimpose alerts on TV screens. Additional signals are transmitted to local officials, using satellite systems as a backup to the land-based system, alerting them to activate sirens and loudspeakers to warn of a possible tsunami. Miles of concrete breakwaters and floodgates protect Japan’s coastline.
All of this may have indeed reduced the country’s losses last Friday when it endured the most powerful earthquake in its history. The 8.9 quake exceeded Haiti’s 7.0 quake last year by a multiplier of 700 while Japan’s death toll will be less than one-tenth of Haiti’s.
Nevertheless, Japan remains at the mercy of natural causes. No amount of technology can stop the shifting of tectonic plates. Human ingenuity is defenseless in the face of a 30-foot wave traveling as fast as 600 mph. Video images make the Japanese communities look like ant hills being hit with water from a fire hydrant.
“The hubris of humanity makes us forget how powerful nature can be,” commented Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. Humans have made expansive progress in subduing the creation and having dominion over it (Genesis 1:28), but the creation imposes severe limitations to that dominion.
Humanity should do all that it can to protect itself against natural disasters, but we need to retain a proper sense of smallness in relationship to the universe. Our technology performs miracles from a century-old perspective, yet the mysteries of geology, meteorology and biology still taunt us. Control of the cosmos eludes us.
Job suffered a series of tragedies caused by human injustice and natural disasters. Then illness struck him to the point that he longed for the grave. He protested his plight, maintaining his innocence before a righteous Judge. He sought to explain his scourge in the face of a theology that defines God as good and just.
Job was privileged to receive a response from God. In his 125-verse rebuttal, God appeals to dozens of events and transactions that occur in creation daily outside Job’s knowledge and control. Nature shrinks Job to an appropriate size. He acknowledges his proper place in the created order, which, in turn, properly orients him to God. Job replies, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” (Job 40:4)
The powerful and unruly forces of nature should humble us, while stimulating our curiosity for answers. Even more tragic than helpless suffering at the hands of a violent creation is clueless suffering, ignorant of the God who possesses power and authority over nature, the God who can protect and heal, the God who can rescue and save.
Faith alone will correctly align us with the God “who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble” (Job 9:7), “who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves” (Ps. 65:7). We cannot know all that there is to know, but we can know the One who knows all that there is to know and who rules over it all.