I wanted to offer clarification about something. There has been a big spike in home page visits on my blog this weekend; I can only assume this is because many occasional readers wondered what I thought or knew about the most-intense earthquake recorded in Japan–and its aftermath.
I am aware of the basic facts that are readily-available elsewhere. At about 2:46 on their Friday afternoon, Japan suffered what is now rated as a magnitude-9.0 earthquake with an epicenter about 81 miles east of Sendai, the largest city in northern Honshu. (This earthquake was actually preceded by a magnitude-7.2 foreshock, previously assumed to be a free-standing event.) Minutes later, a tsunami 12 to 32 feet high slammed into Honshu’s eastern coast at about 500 miles an hour, disintegrating all but the strongest structures, and tossing cars, trucks, boats and trains inland like plastic toys floating in a bathtub. The Sendai earthquake apparently was so powerful that it shifted the northern half of Honshu 8 feet to the east, and pushed the Earth itself 4 inches off its former axis.
On the day of the earthquake, of course, there was no conception at all of the death toll or the cost in both lost economic activity or future reconstruction costs. The first death toll I heard was a positive count of observed and reported deaths: 8. Obviously, no one was expecting that extremely-low figure to hold up, and yesterday the story broke that 10,000 people were missing from the small city of Minamisanriku, about 40 miles northeast of Sendai, alone. This single “suddenly-emerging fact” seems to have driven-home the realization that it could be days before we truly have any means of taking stock of the damage done to Japan by the Sendai earthquake and the quickly-following tsunami.
Why wouldn’t I want to blog about this? There are 2 reasons:
1st, the Liberal Ironist isn’t exactly a news site. This blog often aggregates news stories and online reference sources when providing information, and I hope some readers find this approach useful. But I’m not trying to break every story; I’m trying to offer context, analysis and opinion on stories I consider interesting. I’m usually not in a race to say something timely, because I prefer to reflect on what I’ve seen or read. (Andrew Sullivan has described blogging as a matter of sticking your neck out while a story is breaking news, of reacting in real time. That’s just one approach, one far-removed from my purposes.) When I feel I have something different to say, or at least a different way of telling a story that has broken, I write.
2nd, the Liberal Ironist is about the acts of men and women, not the acts of drifting continents. I’ll not say I haven’t experienced that instinctual but perverse fascination we feel for big disasters–satirized by George Carlin in a classic routine–but that’s all the more reason why I don’t necessarily have something to say when a big story of this sort breaks. We all watched video clips of a 20-foot wall of water churning about cars that may or may not be filled with unfortunate town dwellers who were headed for high ground as fast as they could get there; though I experienced a combination sense of awe, fascination and revulsion like many of you, I had nothing to contribute to that spectacle itself. The Liberal Ironist definitely will have something to say about the mounting meltdown risks at 4 Japanese nuclear power plants. The earthquake was always going to happen, as a physical consequence of the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the westernmost extension of the North American Plate (which is what northern Honshu is), while risk of multiple nuclear meltdowns is the result of human agency. Japanese governments and power companies decided that the construction of a series of nuclear power plants was a prudent long-term investment in their nation’s economic development. We don’t know yet whether that bold decision on their part will be made foolish by multiple critical failures of reactors over the next day or so. We’ll see, and then the Liberal Ironist in his usual fashion will try to understand what we think it means.
In the meantime…
The New York Times has an extensive story on the frantic effort to manually cool reactors at 4 nuclear power plants, an interesting map and diagram of the known damage at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, and a good interactive map detailing earthquake damage around northern Japan. The BBC, as far as I can tell, has had pretty good live coverage of the ongoing post-earthquake crisis in Japan, and has lately focused on the problem of cooling the reactors.