Editorial: Preparing for disaster

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You canít plan for every eventuality, but the catastrophe unfolding in Japan illustrates the importance of emergency preparedness ó whether for an earthquake, a hurricane, a terrorist attack or other calamity.
A week ago, it was unimaginable that Japan would suffer such devastation. This is a highly industrialized nation, home to the worldís third-largest economy. Yet it has been brought to its knees by the triple whammy delivered by a powerful earthquake, a massive tsunami and resulting crisis at a nuclear power site. Any one of those events could be disastrous. Combined, they boggle comprehension. While the body blow delivered by Hurricane Katrina to the U.S. Gulf Coast offers a powerful frame of reference, even that pales in comparison to Japan, where the death toll may reach into the tens of thousands and damage to reactors holds unknown consequences for human health as well as the power grid.
Humanitarian aid efforts are the first priority. But just as Katrina prompted a rigorous review of levee designs and evacuation plans, a similar process is under way following this calamity. European leaders are re-examining how vulnerable their nuclear reactors are to earthquakes and other emergencies. In the U.S., nuclear regulators are also studying Japanís dilemma (and offering their expertise). As more information emerges, theyíll determine its implications for existing reactors and future plants, such as the one Duke Energy has proposed for Cherokee County, S.C.
Although fears of a nuclear meltdown have galvanized attention, a humanitarian disaster is taking place alongside that. Millions of people have little food, water or heat, and up to 450,000 are in temporary shelters. Despite Japanís emergency preparations, the scale of this disaster has overwhelmed resources and readiness.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, federal, state and local officials implemented disaster plans covering a range of scenarios, from sabotage of water supplies to attacks on airports and freight depots. Along with manmade threats, North Carolina has experienced hurricanes and flooding, tornadoes, severe drought, prolonged ice and snow storms and widespread power outages. Without a doubt, weíll revisit some of those in the future as well as confronting other hardships yet unforeseen.
No amount of preparation can prevent this kind of disaster. But imagine how much worse it might be if Japan hadnít considered the consequences of a major tsunami or had any contingency plans for failure of its reactor cooling systems.
What seems unimaginable can become reality in the blink of an eye. Many of our institutions and agencies must be prepared for various emergencies, from fire departments to utilities to transportation departments and schools. You pray those plans are never needed. But worst-case scenarios do occur, and often with little warning.