Remembering the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011 And Efforts to Reduce the Impact of a Similar Event in the Pacific Northwest

Monday, March 11th marks the 8th anniversary of the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, (Sometimes called the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami). The dramatic and startling images, covered on live television, are indelibly chiseled into the subconscious of everyone who watched the events unfold in real time, as the most disaster prepared country in the world, faced the wrath of a magnitude 9.1 earthquake, the 4th largest ever recorded and a series of massive tsunami waves.

Earthquake Early Warning

At 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11, 2011, the Japanese Earthquake Early Warning System received an indication of a major earthquake fault rupture, 45 miles east of the Tōhoku region and 231 miles northeast of Tokyo. Within seconds, the Earthquake Early Warning System transmitted a warning message to the people in and surrounding the Tohoku region of Japan, indicating a large earthquake had occurred. People began receiving the warning message, via a cell phone text message, as local television and radio stations began broadcasting the earthquake warning. As a result of the Early Earthquake Warning, elevators in Tokyo moved to the closest floor and opened to allow passengers to evacuate and take protective actions. Factory assembly lines were automatically shut down and the Tōhoku Shinkansen high-speed bullet trains, travelling nearly 200 mph, were automatically prompted to slow and stop, potentially saving thousands of passengers from injury. Just 5-15 seconds after the alert, coastal areas of the Tōhoku region closest to the rupture, began to violently shake, while a more devastating disaster was fast approaching – a series of massive tsunami waves.

The Impact

As of September 2018, data indicates 15,896 people were killed and 2,536 are still missing from the magnitude 9.1 earthquake and resulting tsunami. 58,000 of the coastal citizens who evacuated their homes remain evacuated 8 years later, while 5,623 still live in prefabricated temporary housing. The economic damage from the disaster event is estimated to be near $360 billion. As of Spring 2017, seven cities, towns and villages have been deemed “difficult to return” zones by the Japanese government because of increased radioactivity in those areas, due to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred during the tsunami.

Is Knowing What to Do Enough?

We can never be prepared enough for disaster, nor should we take any of them lightly. Any effort toward disaster preparation will help reduce the impact the event will have upon your family, business and community.

  • Families need to develop a Family Emergency Plan and discuss all types of disaster events (earthquake, flood, wildfire, tsunami, severe weather, etc.), with each other, to determine which actions to take, where you would evacuate to, shelter locations, and how to contact each other, should you become separated in a true emergency or disaster – then actually practice your plan at least once each year.
  • Each family should prepare Family Emergency Kits to be able to be on your own for a minimum of 2 weeks.
  • Make individual Go Kits for each member of the family, as well as your pets, to store in your home, in vehicles and at work, in the event you must evacuate in a hurry.
  • Sign up to receive emergency and disaster alerts and updates through the Emergency Notification System in your community, city and county.
  • Obtain an All Hazard ALERT Weather Radio for emergency and disaster notifications automatically.
  • Take a first aid and CPR class. You never know who might need assistance.
  • Learn protective actions be used during an earthquake to prevent injury, as well as learning, there may be aftershocks, and the possibility of tsunami in low lying coastal areas.
  • If in tsunami inundation areas, learn what to do and where to go while at home, at work and while shopping.
  • Get involved with local community groups that prepare for disaster such as a Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT).
  • Sign up for the Washington Shake Out and practice your disaster plans with your family.

Local, State and Federal Efforts to Reduce Disaster Impacts

Efforts are increasing in coastal communities to build Tsunami Vertical Evacuation Structures, like the Ocosta Elementary School, in Grays Harbor County and the planned Vertical Evacuation Tower, in Tokeland, by the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe.

Unreinforced Masonry Buildings are being identified throughout Washington as local governments are working with owners to assist in ways to retrofit the buildings, preserving the historic facades, while protecting people from an exterior wall collapse during earthquake.

Earthquake Early Warning is being developed and is becoming more robust throughout the Pacific Northwest and in Washington State. Pilot users are being sought in schools, business and industry to begin implementation of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System. Currently Earthquake Early Warning messages cannot be sent to individuals, because the current process to send the warning to individual cell phones is far too slow. Work is ongoing, toward the development of a process that can transmit the warning to everyone, much more quickly and prior to the earthquake shaking at your location.


For more information on Earthquake Early Warning and/or how to become a Pilot User of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System, please contact:

Chuck Wallace – WA ShakeAlert EEW Coordinator, wallace@crew.org (360) 280-8278

Maximilian Dixon – WA State EMD Earthquake Program Manager, Maximilian.Dixon@mil.wa.gov (253) 512-7017

Bill Steele – PNSN, Director of Outreach & Information Services, wsteele@uw.edu (206) 685-5880

EERI releases report on Societal Impacts related to Great East Japan earthquake

A 23-page report by an EERI reconnaissance team on the Societal Dimensions of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan (Tohoku) Earthquake and Tsunami is now available online. It covers the topics of emergency management, casualties, emergency shelter and housing, economic impacts, debris management, recovery planning, and research questions for each topic.

The EERI report is available here.

For more information on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest please click here.  For information on preparedness please click here.

Tohoku and What It Means for Cascadia

Many recent earthquakes that grabbed headlines occurred outside of Cascadia, in countries such as Japan (Tohoku, 2011), Chile and Haiti (2010) and Indonesia (Sumatra, 2004). These far-away events, while not a part of Cascadia’s history, can teach us what to expect from future earthquakes in our region and help us plan and prepare for them.

Tohoku

A catastrophic magnitude 9 earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The quake and resulting tsunami killed more than 15,700 people and injured another 5,300. More than 4,600 went missing. The events destroyed or damaged buildings, roads, bridges and several reactors at a nuclear power plant. Electricity, gas and water supplies, telecommunications and railway service were disrupted. Economic losses were estimated at $309 billion.

What it means for Cascadia

The tsunami generated by the Tohoku quake hit Hawaii and the U.S. west coast but caused relatively minor damage that generally was limited to beach front and harbor facilities.

  • The Tohoku quake was on a subduction zone fault, almost identical to the Cascadia subduction zone fault that lies off the coast from northern California to British Columbia. The Cascadia fault last ruptured in 1700, and is capable of unleashing a tsunami every bit as powerful and devastating.
  •  As devastating as Tohoku was, Japanese building codes (more restrictive and expensive than U.S. codes) prevented greater destruction.
  •  The tsunami generated by the Tohoku quake, not the quake itself, was responsible for most of the deaths, injuries and property damage. The size of the waves (up to 33 feet or 10 meters) overwhelmed seawalls and other defenses. The only way to protect people in the tsunami’s path is to train them to evacuate to high ground when a warning is given. In the case of Tohoku, as in a potential Cascadia subduction zone tsunami, the warning is the earthquake itself.

More Tohoku resources