Japan learned through a series of hard lessons, culminating 20 years ago, that it needed to make a more concerted effort to reduce the damage from earthquakes before they happened.
Although the country had made progress in improving seismic resiliency through improved building codes and early-warning systems, there was a major shift towards this preventative approach following the catastrophic 1995 earthquake in the south of Japan near Kobe, which killed more than 6,000 people.
Investigation showed that more than 5,500 people had been killed in the collapse of buildings constructed before strengthened seismic standards were introduced in 1981.
“There was a call for a nationwide movement of disaster reduction,” Dr. Satoru Nishikawa, executive director of research for the Japan Center for Area Development Research, told a disaster forum at the University of B.C. this week.
In a chilling reminder Tuesday of earthquake risks along the so-called Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean basin, a powerful quake off the Japaense coast triggered tsunami warnings, later lifted, and injured at least a dozen people.
Hiro Nishiguchi, president of the joint industry, government and academic group Japan Bosai Platform told the Vancouver forum that the essence of disaster risk reduction is preparing beforehand. “This is about saving your people, community and economy,” he said.
After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japan passed a law encouraging seismic upgrades and provided funding incentives for seismic assessments and retrofits of houses and apartments, said Nishikawa.
Credit unions stepped in with low-interest loans to backstop seismic upgrades for small and medium-sized businesses.
The one-day event on Monday – organized by the Japanese and B.C. governments – attracted about 100 provincial, local government, emergency, academic, business, engineering and aid representatives.
The forum was held as the B.C. government is attempting to increase its preparation for a major B.C. earthquake. Scientists say there is a 30 per cent probability of a damaging earthquake hitting a populated area in southwest B.C. in the next 50 years. The risk includes the so-called Big One along a major fault off the coast, last hit by a major quake in 1700.
Underscoring the need for preparedness was a report released Tuesday by the Conference Board of Canada that says a major earthquake in British Columbia could devastate the Canadian economy, lead to long-lasting costs and potentially the failure of the insurance industry.
The Japanese efforts appear to be helping, said Nishikawa.
In 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s west coast. In Sendai, a city of one million, which had undergone seismic retrofits, less than a dozen people died from the earthquake, though hundreds from the affects of the tsunami.
Asako Okai, the consul general for Japan in Vancouver, noted that research has shown every dollar spent on risk reduction saves $7 in recovery costs.
The B.C. government has seismically retrofitted schools and bridges, but shown little interest in addressing thousands of privately owned buildings that do not meet modern seismic safety standards, an examination by Postmedia has shown.
The municipal record on addressing the seismic risk of private buildings has been spotty. The City of Vancouver first identified more than 20 years ago a need to reduce the seismic hazard of its older, existing private building stock, but failed to create a program to do so, the investigation showed.
B.C.’s minister for state for emergency preparedness, Naomi Yamamoto, told the forum she does not believe British Columbians are prepared for a major earthquake.
In an interview, Yamamoto said the organization of the forum is a start in examining the need to seismically retrofit privately-owned buildings.
“This is the first time in a long time we’ve had a conference attracting the calibre of engineers and scientists to talk about some of the solutions they’ve come up with in Japan,” she said.