Mar 20

Structural engineer and earthquake specialist Kit Miyamoto, who has provided valuable forensic information from nearly every major earthquake site around the world in recent years, is now in Sendai, Japan. He reports:

Sendai, Japan (March 19, 2011)

Fire and Water

An ancient inlet valley surrounded by snowy mountains appears before me at sunset. But the smell of oil and death burns my nose at the same time. An old fisherman approaches me and points in the distance. “You see three oil tanks out there? These tanks created all the deaths here. A 10-meter tsunami overcame the seawall, and it destroyed the tanks and spilled oil into the bay. The oil caught on fire, and it became a hell of fire and water.” Full text and more at

Sendai, Japan (March 16, 2011)  …“A police officer acknowledges my credentials, points to a direction, and says, ’Just go straight for three kilometers. You will reach the Arahama beach. Come back by dusk and tell me why the seawall failed to protect my town.’ …Nothing really has prepared me for what I see. I have been in many disasters, but this one is different. I see complete destruction. Many people lost their lives here. The feeling of desolation is heavy.

"I enter a mangled pine tree forest, which was planted to slow down a tsunami. I find 2-meter-high seawalls stretched from horizon to horizon. The Japanese government has spent billions of dollars over the last several decades to build an elaborate seawall system along the country’s coastline. But the seawalls turned out to be simply too small for a 3- to 10-meter tsunami. Could a 10-meter-high wall save this town? Probably. But a 15-meter-high wave would wash over it. Any walls will eventually be overcome by nature. Over-reliance on seawalls will not mitigate the tsunami hazard. Buildings also need to be able to survive a tsunami. The Fukushima nuclear plant relied on a 5-meter-high seawall. The wall did not work for a 10-meter-high tsunami, and eventually this failure caused a nuclear meltdown. A singular solution cannot address all the potential hazards. We engineers must design sustainable communities. To do that, multiple solutions must be used, and we must understand all of nature’s forces. So, designing alternative means to address nature’s forces is critical.” 

For the complete story from Sendai, visit Kit’s journal entries at


"I start walking toward the destroyed town and beach that I visited when I was a boy. Nothing really has prepared me for what I see. I have been in many disasters, but this one is different. I see complete destruction."  Miyamoto International blog

Mar 14

I spent much of the day researching and talking to experts and trying to make sense of how a critical facility with four nuclear reactors can be built to withstand massive earthquakes and tsunami and God knows what else, and still leave its mission-critical backup generators exposed to flooding. 

There is something fatally wrong here, and I do not know why I should think it is any different in the U.S than it is in Japan. I am also deeply troubled by the fact that most of us have already mentally isolated our exposure to this menace to the Pacific Northwest, where the geology has similarities to northeastern Japan, and thus is the only area at similar risk.

 I am not convinced. 

Protecting backup generation capacity should be at least as high a priority, if not even higher, than protecting primary feeds. You will not need backup unless you are absolutely desperate to have it. Case in point: Japan. What could be more important?

More on this tomorrow. 

But this report comes to us from Kit Miyamoto, a San Francicso-based earthquake engineer who happened to be in Tokyo when things started coming apart last Friday, and who now is heading toward the northeast coast to make assessments for clients, after sending his family safely home:

“My super packed train has stopped again. I am in the middle of Tokyo heading to Shibuya to catch a van to the North. The threat of a power outage has changed the train schedule.  People are getting sick in the trains, since so many people are packed in tightly together and the train frequently stops due to sudden schedule changes. 
“I sense a dark cloud of stress hovering over this well organized, advanced society. This earthquake disaster is evolving into something much more than anyone expected on Friday. We are expecting over 10,000 deaths now. Beyond damaged nuclear plants, many fossil fuel burning power plants are also damaged along the eastern coastline.  Because of this, we are experiencing 4-hour rolling power blackouts in the cities to save energy, forcing many large stores and businesses to close. 
“And the aftershocks continue.  This constant rolling motion makes me dizzy. There is a 70% probability of a Magnitude 7 or larger aftershock in the next five days, which will cause more damage and potentially another tsunami. Many businesses and plants across the country, including Toyota, are closed because of damage to key suppliers. The total economic impact to society is still unknown, but it will be huge. The economic impact of this earthquake will be felt worldwide.

“Why did the sea walls and power plants fail? Aren't they engineered by advanced Japanese earthquake engineering technology? The answer is simple. Following a standard building code is not good enough to provide sustainability for a building or for a city. Many buildings in Japan are designed to withstand a Magnitude 7, or what engineers call a 500-year earthquake event. This has pretty much been the standard worldwide. But often these forces are exceeded in earthquakes. If we engineered these sea walls for 10 meter tsunamis, if the cooling system of the nuclear plant didn't fail because the tsunami went over the sea walls, then the impact of this earthquake would be much less. Is it too expensive to do that? That question should be asked of the people in the cities that were swallowed by the Tsunami or the people in buildings that collapsed and can no longer be occupied. There are often cost effective, innovative ways to control the effect of disaster.

“It is getting dark. I am climbing up on the van heading toward Sendai. This will be a long ride.” 

See his reports at  www.miyamotointernational.c




here is another essentially raw feed from Dennis Normile, a long-time correspondent for ENR, from Tokyo:


    The magnitude 8.9 earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11 seems set to reinforce a lesson from previous large off-shore temblors: Coastal dwellers and their buildings and lifelines are far

more vulnerable to ensuing tsunami than from the shaking itself.


     This may be especially true for Japan, where a stringent building code has apparently kept structural damage from shaking to moderate levels, even though the earthquake that struck 231 miles northeast of Tokyo and 80 miles east of Sendai, a city of one million, is the fifth largest ever recorded by modern seismic instruments. But structures that apparently withstood the shaking were no match for a series of waves up to 30 feet high that topped coastal storm surge berms and even washed over 3-story buildings. In dramatic live coverage from helicopters, NKH, the national broadcaster, captured scenes of intact buildings simply washed off their foundations by the relentless surge of water.


      At press time, the confirmed death toll was approaching 2,000; but at least 15,000 were missing. Large swaths of Iwate, Miyagi and  Fukushima prefectures remained without electricity, phone and water service. Hundreds of thousands remained in shelters while Japanese TV news reported that gasoline shortages were hampering the delivery of food and supplies to stores.


   Entire communities along the coast were virtually washed away or reduced to massive piles of ruble. Rescue efforts have been hampered by debris blocking bridges, roads and train lines. Emergency shelters ar facing shortages of food and water with phone lines and even mobile phone connections cut, communication has been difficult. Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, declared it the nation's  "worst crisis since the war."


     But all eyes have been on two crippled nuclear power plants located in Fukushima Prefecture 170 miles north of Tokyo where partial meltdowns were feared at 2 reactors. The earthquake knocked out power to the primary cooling systems and the tsunami took out backup pumps. Operators had taken what one expert described as a "desperation measure" b pumping seawater into the reactor to cool the core. Meanwhile, gas that built up outside the containment vessel blew the walls off of the reactor building. Officials from the government and Tokyo Electric Power, the plant operator, assured the public the reactor containment vessel was intact. Naoto Sekimura, a systems engineer at University of Tokyo, appearing on NHK insisted there was little chance of a Chernobyl-like meltdown and that radiation leakage would be minimal.


    But 11 nuclear reactors at different plants were shut down for inspection. With its generating capacity crippled, Tokyo Electric had to resort to a scheme of rolling daily blackouts across its service area cutting power to targeted regions for 3 hours 40 minutes at a time. Central Tokyo, the nerve center of the response effort, was exempted. The blackout announcement caused a run on flashlights, batteries and candles.


 At press time it was not clear how long the blackouts would continue. Meanwhile, a panel of experts appearing on TV discussed the challenge of protecting against tsunami. Building walls tall and strong enough to resist such waves would be horrendously expensive, as would schemes to raise buildings off the ground on columns to allow water to flow underneath. Stands of trees and vegetation to absorb the brunt of the impact would require moving structures far from the coast. Stout concrete buildings can act as vertical refuges, but providing enough of them to serve an entire community would also be a formidable challenge. The tsunami problem is likely to occupy the minds of engineers and planners for some time.




Mar 13


How to Help NYT


A 20-km exclusion zone is in place as the authorities pump in sea water in a bid to cool down the nuclear reactor. UK Channel 4


Japanese Man Rescued 10 Miles Offshore After Being Swept Away Time


NYT Blog roll: Latest updates


Mar. 12


Report on infrastructure damage are starting to come in. From the Los Angeles Times: Japanese officials have determined that more than 1,231 buildings have been destroyed and another 4,000 damaged by the incident, according to the report, and about 1,450 roads, eight railways and 22 bridges have been damaged or washed away. An irrigation dam has reportedly burst, sweeping away houses in Fukushima.


The Mainichi Daily News reports: Japanese authorities have confirmed there was an explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant Saturday afternoon but it did not occur at its troubled No. 1 reactor, top government spokesman Yukio Edano said.




The Reuters summary of the disaster put the number of those dead or missing from the earthquake and tsunami at 1,700.


The explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant was likely caused by a meltdown in the reactor core, Nikkei reports. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. began using seawater Saturday afternoon to cool the core. posted a compelling blog overview of the confusion on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the temblor and subsequent tidal wave: Japan awoke Saturday to some horrible images of houses, cars, and people being carried away by tsunami waves with body counts rising into the many hundreds.


Frightening video of the tsunami as seen from the Sendai airport terminal appeared on Youtube:

Mar. 11

Reports are starting to filter in from Japan, including one from Kit Miyamoto, of Miyamoto International, a global earthquake and structural engineering firm. Miyamoto posted his first report a little after 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 11.

Miyamoto's first report says more than confirmed 400 dead and more than 1,000 expected. Hundreds of people are reported missing; 13-foot tsunami damage along the eastern seaboard. Large areas of inundation taking out structures. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shut down and 3 km zone was ordered to be evacuated.

A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control. In downtown Tokyo, a large building is on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district. In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. More than 4 million buildings without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.

Miyamoto was presenting at an earthquake engineering conference in Tokyo Institute of Technology and was on a subway there when the quake struck. He is now heading to the disaster site for a client to conduct expert damage assessment.

His report can be seen here:

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit at 2:46 p.m. local time in one of the most densely populated areas of Honshu, Japan.

The fault rupture, according to the U.S. Geological Service was approximately 180 miles long and 50 miles across. The amount of energy released from the earthquake was the equivalent of approximately 30 of the 1906 San Francisco earthquakes, said David Applegate, senior science advisor for earthquakes and geologic hazards, USGS in a news conference with reporters. The damage to buildings and infrastructure from the shaking alone is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars, Applegate said.


What’s being done/response:


The U.S. Agency for International Development announced on March 11 that it is dispatching a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to Japan and has mobilized its partners, the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team. Each rescue team includes about 72 people, as well as search and rescue dogs and approximately 75 tons of rescue equipment.


The rescue teams will be accompanied by USAID disaster experts who will

assist with damage assessments.


According to David Applegate, senior science advisor for earthquakes and geological hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey, although the damage from the disaster is estimated to total in the tens of billions of dollars just from the shaking alone, Japan was as prepared as possible for a large earthquake. 

“Japan has the best seismic network, the best seismologists in the world…and as a result, some of the best building codes as well. The Japanese are very experienced in dealing with earthquakes.”


In the U.S., the damage so far appears to be limited to coastal areas. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, said that most of the damage and impacts in the United States appear to be “mainly focused on marinas, boats and roads that are close to the water” with no reported fatalities, although one man is reported missing after having been swept out to sea by the waves.


Previous posts:

The Associated Press reports seas have been acting up along the California central coast all morning. Some harbor damage is being reported at 1 p.m. EST from harbors at Santa Cruz and Crescent City, California, with docks damaged and boats torn from moorings by swiftly rising waters and then left stranded on the mud by the waters' rapid fall. 

Reports from Washington and Oregon suggest the coincidence of low tide during the hours that the waves hit have helped limit the impact. 

Contacts evacuated from a hotel in Maui, Hawaii at 3 .a.m. this morning to the safety of their rental car in a parking lot on high ground report watching the water at the beach fall 18 ft, then rise 16 ft, then fall 10 ft. and say "it's still going up and down. All the airports are closed."

At a press conference in Washington, D.C. Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama offered assistance to Japan and said that he is "heartbroken" by the earthquake. He said he had spoken to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan this morning and said that the U.S. would provide Japan "whatever assistance is needed."

The President also said that the main type of assistance will be heavy equipment to provide "lift capacity" to help with the post-quake cleanup.

Obama also said, "I am very confident, though, obviously that the Japanese people are so resourceful, Japan has such a powerful economy, and such an advanced economy technologically, that Japan will successfully rebuild."

He added that Japan "has experience dealing with natural disasters. It has dealt with them before and will deal with them again and Japan I'm sure will come back stronger than ever, hopefully with our help."

He also noted that the U.S.  is monitoring the effects  of the quake-produced tsunami on the West Coast, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is "fully activated" and working with state and local officials. "We're taking this very seriously," Obama said.

An ENR contributor in Tokyo, Dennis Normile, reported this morning that the quake was felt strongly in Tokyo, over 300 km from the source, but he had observed only light damage. "Just some broken dishes and stuff in the kitchen," he said, but he called it "a hell of a ride."

Normile said reports from Sendai, in Northeast Japan near the epicenter suggest seismically engineered buildings "seem to have 

done pretty well", but transport links are down.

Along the west coasts of North and South America, however, officials are on guard for tsunami.

Robert Carlsen, our regional editor in California is monitoring news reports in the region that say, at noon, officials in California's Humboldt and Del Norte counties near the Oregon border and in the city of Crescent City (pop. 8,000) expect waves may reach 7 ft. Evacuations are in effect. Nothing impacts reported from San Francisco or Los Angeles, but in the San Francisco area the Great Highway along the coast has been closed to traffic as  a precaution. Half Moon Bay has closed its schools today, but no other school districts along the coast have. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is monitoring the situation and says it is ready to close the Bay tube if necessary.

 From the Associated Press earlier today, In Alaska, the tsunami caused a wave just over 5 feet at Shemya in the Aleutian Islands, 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Also at noon, Freelancer Tim Newcomb, Lynden, Wash., reports evacuations have been ordered in coastal Washington State and Oregon, but no impacts reported from tsunami yet. 

At the U.S.  State Dept. Secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued a statement saying “The U.S. Government has offered immediate disaster relief assistance, and we are working closely with the Government of Japan to provide additional help.” Clinton added, “The United States is an unwavering friend and ally of Japan, and we are committed to helping Japan respond and recover.”

President Barak Obama was briefed at 9:30 a.m. on the earthquake and the tsunami warnings across the Pacific from senior U.S. government officials.
The officials provided an update on the evolving situation and the actions being taken to assist U.S. states and territories that could be affected by the tsunami.
According to a White House statement, the federal government is in close contact and coordination with state and local officials, and stands ready to support them. The government’s message to the public is:
"Listen to the instructions of state and local officials. We urge everyone in the regions who could be impacted to listen to a NOAA Weather Radio and their local news to monitor for updates and directions provided by their local officials."

The U.S. Geological Survey has a wealth of data going up on its site now:
And in Washington, D.C., officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have scheduled a press conference at 1:45 p.m. EST to provide updates on the latest impact of the earthquake in Japan and resulting tsunami, and the U.S. government's actions to respond to the disaster.