The Nature of Catastrophe

A destroyed section of the Japanese coastal city of Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture, the day after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, March 2011

Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

At first it was just a thin white line, seemingly painted far out onto the eastern horizon between the sky and the sea. But then the line steadily thickened and raced closer and closer to shore, until all too swiftly it was translated into the onrushing tsunami of March 11, 2011. The contorted coastal topography of this part of the Tohoku coast of northeastern Japan divided it into filigrees that licked lethally—as many as seven times, some said—into and out of the fjords, at the head of one of which stood the small town of Minamisanriku. The succession of gigantic torrents of Pacific Ocean water utterly wrecked the community’s heart, killed hundreds, and all but erased it from the map.

But this town, like many others nearby, is now being energetically rebuilt, and the best way to view its reconstruction is from the sea that destroyed it. So I went a mile or so out into the bay with a cheery local fisherman named Yoshiki Takahashi. Once we were bouncing gently on the waves above his oyster beds he pointed back at the immense construction site that has temporarily replaced the town in which he grew up.

Dominating the scene, as though painted onto the western horizon between the mountains and the sea, was a thin white line again, a reflected memory of that devastating wave of six years before. But while that line of 2011 had been made of water pregnant with destructive power, this line of 2017 is made of enormous concrete hexagons, heavy with boulders and cemented tons of riprap. It is the shiny new municipal seawall, sloping up to forty feet high, which the town is building fast to ensure—and to hope—that those who live here now and in the future can be protected from the occasional seismic fury to which all Japan is prey and to which its people have become necessarily accustomed.

Nineteen thousand people died in the 2011 catastrophe, a third as many more were injured, and a swath of rockily indented coastline, with some three hundred fishing villages like Minamisanriku and a scattering of deepwater ports—and the now infamous Fukushima atomic power station—was wrecked. Because the tsunami and the earthquake that caused it hit an advanced and prosperous industrialized country, and one that has a sophisticated actuarial perspective on such events, it is singled out as probably the costliest disaster in world history—an estimated $300 billion for the rebuilding.

Other natural events have been far more lethal, however. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 killed more than a quarter of a million people, mostly poor—not unlike in this respect the similar numbers who died during China’s…

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