In March 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami plunged the nation of Japan into its worst crisis since World War II. The magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake about 43 miles off the peninsula of Tohoku killed some 16,000 people, injured more than 6,000 and left nearly 3,000 missing. It destroyed or damaged more than one million buildings. A great deal of that damage was from the tsunami generated by the quake, inundating areas as far as six miles inland, with waves as high as 133 feet.
Estimates of insured damage from the earthquake alone approach $35 billion on the high side and total economic losses are estimated at $235 billion, making this the most costly natural disaster in history—without even taking into account the long-term effects of the multiple nuclear accidents the event caused.
One of the very few “good” things to come from this horrific event was that it occurred in an age when just about anybody affected by the disaster had the ability to video it and upload the footage online. The entire globe could bear witness to the tragedy, and many did in the weeks and months that followed. But the clips stopped after a while, and the event slipped into the realms of Something That Happened Somewhere Else & Could Never Happen Here.
Recently, a new video of the tsunami went live, and it is a remarkable, 25-minute account from Kesennuma Port, starting from the moments before the tsunami arrives. We see, on camera, citizens meandering near a waterway curious to see what the tsunami might look like. A tsunami alarm blares in the background as a civil safety officer ineffectually waves people away. We see the first ribbon of water arrive, spilling toward the port as if some mythic titan has tilted the world so the ocean might pour inland. Boats pull from moorings and smash into each other. People flee to higher ground. A pedestrian bridge simply disappears after a brief sound of rending metal. Entire houses float by, disintegrating into a blanket of debris covering the black water. Fuel tanks rupture, cars bob in the water like broken toys, power lines go down. And then, the water slows. Later, we see darkness fall as massive fires break out across the city, lighting the sky.
This tsunami is not a unique event; Japan is no more proof against such a thing happening again just because it happened recently as the U.S. northeast is proof against a Category 2 or 3 hurricane making landfall this autumn, even though many people are still not fully recovered from last year’s Superstorm Sandy. This is true of any natural disaster, and just as true is our nature to ignore such peril even when it is bearing down upon us. As we watch this tsunami video, we see people dawdle and gawk before the water, unknowingly making a dire gamble with their lives. They are no different from the surfers we see catching waves as a hurricane comes ashore, or of those who refuse to evacuate landfall areas. These are forces we must respect, and so rarely do.
But the way to pay that respect is to prepare, to remove ourselves from harm’s way if possible and to have in place the resources necessary to recover from the damage that follows. Many look to the insurance world to help with all of that, not so much as a service one buys for one’s own good, but as some kind of entitlement against calamity. Insurance is not that, nor should it be. But it is something that enables us to endure the wrath of nature in ways that we never could in days gone by. And for that, we should be thankful, indeed. We will need it.