Earthquakes hit Japan and Ecuador just hours apart on April 16, and news organizations scurried to discover if they were somehow linked.
But the sense of relief washing over readers from an answer -- scientists said they weren’t connected -- can be the very symptom of the cognitive dissonance that leaves countries inadequately prepared to manage natural disasters in more effective ways.
Despite the outpouring of support from U.S. cities, military, technical, and financial aid from governments (even Palestine sent relief to Ecuador) as well as support from companies like Google and Verizon in the form of communications services, the media focused its attention on something few on the ground probably cared about. At a time where hundreds are dead, thousands are displaced and many face starvation, readers might instead ask The New York Times, ABC News, Wired, USA Today, CNN, CBC News, Discovery News, New Scientist and countless others a different question: What difference does it make if these earthquakes were linked?
The potential for more earthquakes in the U.S. has already been known for quite some time. As Kathryn Schulz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker article "The Really Big One" argued in 2015, “robust science” predicts earthquakes affecting the entire West Coast of the United States in the near future. This fact remains true whether or not Japan and Ecuador were part of some kind of domino effect. The danger of the “coincidence” of Ecuador and Japan is that it evokes a sense of relief even at a time in which countries may be dangerously unprepared.
“It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster,” geographer Neil Smith wrote after Hurricane Katrina. “In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”
Disasters are at every level defined by how they are perceived and managed. This directly applies to the those in poorer areas that suffer the most. Poorly built homes collapse, emergency services lag, and the lack of infrastructure slows aid and reconstruction efforts. Additionally, the lack of representation and political clout of these communities silence their voices, opinions, and local solutions.
If Smith’s opinion carries any weight, individuals and organizations could benefit by perceiving Japan and Ecuador’s “events” not as random isolated incidents, but instead as larger ongoing processes of crisis management. These processes, or phases that include the vulnerability, preparedness and extend to how they influence further action, are important because they increase awareness of seemingly unrelated systemic problems that exist both in these countries and at home.
In Japan, officials in the metropolis of Tokyo have been working to curb infrastructural risks associated with population density, and have pushed crisis education, and construction regulations for many years. Additionally, the experience of recent earthquakes and their ensuing disasters prompted quick action to aid the Kyushu region, including help from residents and organizations with experience from the Tohoku and Kobe areas.
Although public support may be in favor of such measures, it often takes more than political will or societal shifts to increase resilience. In the aftermath of the 2011 disasters in Tohoku, Tokyo still struggled to deal with food shortages, rolling blackouts, and a damaged economy, despite the many security measures it put in place. Similarly, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa blamed the earthquake's mounting death toll on those in his country who ignored stronger construction regulations instituted after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
As easy as it is to blame contractors in Ecuador, utility companies for mismanaging power supplies and resources in Japan, and corporations proliferating disasters through neglect, these examples highlight a complex disconnect between market, social, and government incentives. On the other hand, stories such as Japanese convenience stores working as logistical hubs or increased aid resources generated from corporate tax increases in Ecuador show where markets, populations, and institutional interests might coincide.
“This is not simply an academic point but a practical one,” Smith says about understanding the social aspect of disasters, “and it has everything to do with how societies prepare for and absorb natural events and how they can or should reconstruct afterward.”
The earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador are in fact related in as many ways as society is connected. Both countries struggle with earthquakes at a time where very similar problems like economic inequality, governmental instability, and social tensions exist.
It is too early to assess the extent of damage from the April 16 earthquakes, or how the international community will absorb the events, but we know the “potential” for disaster often falls disproportionately on areas that lack the infrastructure or social resources to manage the additional shocks in providing basic necessities. We also know that these areas exist everywhere.