Print called "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" or "Red Fuji" by Hokusai
Asia, disaster

Mount Fuji In Red, After Fukushima

Among the eight vignettes in Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams is “Mount Fuji in Red.” It’s the sixth story, and among the eight dreams, it’s one of the nightmares. It’s a stark, bleak view of a few people discussing——while trying to flee——a nuclear disaster.

Akira Kurosawa: DREAMS (1990) from cinema.antifono on Vimeo.

[Update July 2013: Ugh, someone took down that video. Sorry for the inconvenience. Until I find another version to embed, you can read the relevant script dialogue here.]

I saw this before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, which began just about two years ago. But where the short film might come off as preachy and reflective of some reflexive late-80s anti-nuclear sentiment, it now evokes the anxieties and concerns about nuclear safety that we’ve come to know as Japan’s “safety myth.” That, as the Times summed it up, “Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe.”*

“They told us that nuclear plants were safe,” says the woman in the dream. “Human accident is the danger, not the nuclear plant itself. No accidents, no dangers. That’s what they told us. What liars!”

*Or, rather, as the Japan Times put it after the government’s report on the disaster, the myth required ignoring the possibility of rare but extreme events.



disaster, politics

Quick Note on PIPA, SOPA, and the Cyber Senator

I am disappointed in Pat Leahy.

The good senator from Vermont and I probably agree on more issues than disagree. But we do disagree on his Protect Intellectual Property Act, also known as PIPA. You may have heard of PIPA, or its more notorious House counterpart, SOPA.

Many notable web sites have gone dark or posted messages of opposition to the proposed legislation due to its potential pernicious consequences. (There are plenty of analyses of the effects of this legislation; this one, for example). Suffice it to say that SOPA and PIPA represent credible threats to free speech and innovation.

Senator Leahy introduced this bill. I’m disappointed that Leahy, in particular, introduced it. Yes, he’s a longtime supporter of intellectual property protections. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that; after all, I benefit from copyright. Of late, he’s taken a defensive position on it: It’s interesting to see his webpage on the topic of IP is full of PIPA justifications and clarifications, and some of his recent press releases have stated outright that Wikipedia, reddit, et al, wouldn’t be affected by PIPA. To which point, again, I point you to this analysis.

The irony in all of this, for me, comes from Senator Leahy’s professed enthusiasm for technology. His use of the web has been a point of pride, and his office still reminds people that he is “the second senator to launch a website.” He’s called—or calls himself—the “cyber senator” for goodness sake (I’ve associated that label with him for years). Why? For “his ongoing leadership on issues related to the Internet and technology.”

Indeed. It must be confounding for the Cyber Senator to be responsible for legislation that, under its current proposed status, is merely anathema to the tech industry, but, if passed and enacted, could be poison to it.

image of statue that fell to the ground after the 1906 earthquake
anticipation, disaster, earth

In an Earthquake, Outside

Some jarring footage out of Lorca, Spain, from the 11th of May:

One of the persistent scenarios that has come up when talking about earthquakes is what to do if you happen to be walking down a sidewalk and surrounded by buildings. If you’re inside a building, you should take cover under a sturdy desk or table and wait it out. But if you’re strolling downtown after lunch, what about the falling glass or bricks or cornices? Remember this scene from Yokohama during the Japanese earthquake in March?

workers run from large objects falling from buildings
Large chunks of the building or signage came crashing to the ground. (This is just a screenshot as I haven’t found a video I can embed, but you should definitely watch the clip on the BBC’s site.)

It’s hard to know what the best advice is for any given situation. I remember asking one expert about the outside/near buildings scenario, but all he could really suggest was to get away from buildings. That’s probably as all-purpose as anyone can get. It’s also the advice that comes from FEMA and the Southern California Earthquake Center, for example.

There are so many factors at work in a situation like this—what kind of building, how close are you, can you get inside, is the street blocked— and only a moment to react. There is surely some element of chance involved.

Closed-circuit TV footage from February’s destructive Christchurch, New Zealand, quake showed the exterior of a building essentially peeling off. Still, at the moment of shaking, who would expect that so much brick would fall from the building, and so far—that the physics would be just so? In the footage, a passerby can be seen running toward the building and taking shelter in an alcove. It works, the bricks fall just beyond him and he walks away apparently unscathed. The person who provided the footage says he did the right thing by staying out of the street.

Addendum, 23 August 2011: After today’s Viriginia earthquake, somebody pointed out that FEMA also has a page that says, more directly:

If outdoors
-Stay there.
-Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
-Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

[Image at top: A statue of scientist Louis Agassiz at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake. Via USGS Photographic Library.]


A Fire Ecology

The house two doors down from ours burned this morning. Alisa woke up thinking that someone was walking in our fenced yard in the pre-dawn darkness. A minute or two later, we smelled the scent of campfire and burnt rubber, then heard a woman’s voice in the darkness calmly talking to a 911 operator.

She told the operator that the third house down 18th Street from Market was on fire. Puzzling the math and geography out in my head, I realized that she could easily have been referring to our house. I looked out our back door and spotted the fire. I got onto a neighbor’s back porch, next to the burning building, where he was spraying the fire with a garden hose.

The front of the house looks better than the back. So when we get the street view, although there are broken windows and a pile of damaged materials, the structure appears to have survived unscathed.

But look at the back. A hole in the roof, a deck gone missing.

The fire today triggered a number of systems, their component pieces spinning and whirring throughout the morning. There were the half dozen fire trucks with accompanying crew lined up along the block.

All the house residents got out, eventually; the first, in whose room the fire supposedly started, taken away in an ambulance. There were several police taking statements, arson investigators, transit officials blocking traffic. Dozens of neighbors showed up to watch; I probably met more this morning than any other day in the last two years.

Two on-air reporters, along with camera operators, filed stories on their morning shows.

Our district supervisor arrived and placed several calls to the city bureaucracy to ensure the city shoveled away the charred contents that the firefighters dragged out (after a fire in the neighborhood last year, the trashed items sat on the street for days); neighbors were especially worried that the house would sit abandoned in disrepair indefinitely. A small team of Red Cross staffers arrived to help the residents navigate paperwork and figure out what to do next. They dropped off a couple of cardboard animal crates in case we came across either of the two cats that lived in the house, Yo-yo and Magic.

The morning’s efforts were a kind of municipal immune response: inflammation, a flood of treatment to stop the problem and keep it from spreading, and then a temporary scabbing over as wooden boards were nailed over the windows. Recovery would be the logical next step, though word is that the insurance might be in arrears, which would compound an already complicated situation.

But another analogy seems appropriate. As I write this, I can hear the whine of circular saws cutting through more wood to be used boarding up and stabilizing the house. Before even the Red Cross showed up this morning, a man in a pressed yellow shirt and slicked back hair with a small portfolio tucked under his arm stood nearby. A neighbor and I thought he might be an insurance representative, but he never approached, he only observed. Soon a tall man in quilted jacket and jeans, also appeared, slowly moving closer and closer to the victims. Then a short man wearing a brown Carhartt jacket who walked right up to them. Then a man in a polo shirt. They all carried black leather portfolios. A few more showed up; some seemed to be working together.

When I was researching a long article on earthquakes in the Bay Area, I remember in particular one detail of an expected post-earthquake scene. After the Big One, contractors and speculators will drive through neighborhoods looking for damaged houses, presumably either to make a bid on a job, or make an offer outright on the property. After seeing the man in the quilted jacket tell a Red Cross agent that the man in the Carhartt jacket was being very aggressive, and they should really do something about him, I thought of this scenario. They seemed to be competitors.

“They’re board-up guys,” that same Red Cross staffer told me later. In other words, contractors, who want to get the job hammering sheets of plywood over the broken windows and doing whatever else is needed in the short term. “When there’s a fire,” he added, “it’s like an ecosystem. The wolves come around and circle the little rabbit. I try to keep them at arm’s length from the victims.”

Although somebody’s got to secure and seal this otherwise gutted house, it sounds like the construction version of ambulance chasing. (We’re piling one analogy on another today.) And so, maybe wolves, maybe vultures. But even vultures have their niche in the ecosystem.

China, disaster, earth, environment, international, unfortunate

Heavy Weather in Sichuan

Gray skies are a common feature of many photos coming from Sichuan. Word is that it’s been raining.

The destruction that follows an earthquake’s shaking is often the result of fire. San Francisco in 1906 is the classic example: in much of the city, whatever the shaking didn’t break later went up in flames.  The risk exists today: imagine the consequences of dense development, broken gas mains, and exposed electrical lines or errant sparks (one of the 1906 fires was the “ham and eggs” fire, supposedly started by a family cooking breakfast). Then throw in some broken water mains and a dry season. That’s it.

Right now, it’s not a dry season in Sichuan, and no word of fire has come out. That’s a good thing. The steep-sided topography would tend to promote the spread of fires. If there were fires, it’s possible that the rain could be helpful.

But the rain can also be harmful in sloped regions like this one. An earthquake as large as this would shake a lot of stuff loose, creating landslides–and by all accounts it has. But this can be intensified if the ground is saturated rather than dry. If the rain continues, along with aftershocks, the people of Sichuan are in a precarious position–in danger both from shaking below and landslides above. David Petley, a geography professor at Durham University, predicts a bad landslide summer in Sichuan. He highlights the photo below, from Xinhua, as showing landslides. You can see the evidence, those patches of fresh earth on the mountain sides. More photos at his site.

Xinhua photos indicating extent of landslides.

And now there is talk of another cyclone hitting Burma.

China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.