I felt three small quakes in Japan yesterday, two in Natori, near Sendai as I was preparing to return by train to Tokyo, and another in Narita, near Tokyo. All were in the quiet hours at the ends of the day, but all were strong enough to have been noticeable during normal daytime activities. The lamp fixtures clattered and the room wobbled around. 

These little shocks don’t amount to much, but when you picture what they signify, that somewhere many miles away and probably beneath the sea, the earth is shrugging uneasily and splitting its skin, it gives you the uncomfortable feeling that you are living on a slumbering being capable of 
enraged awakenings. 

It makes me think of the tension that has been building for 300 years in the subduction fault off the Pacific Northwest—the mirror twin of the one that startled awake near here on March 11. It makes me think of  the New Madrid Fault in the Mississippi Valley, sleeping since 1812. And it makes me fear their awakenings.

The train trip down past Fukushima to Tokyo was fast and smooth with no interruptions. The bullet trains, or shinkansen, bind the country' cities together. They are so important that the government is endorsing Japan Railway Co.’s plans construct maglev extensions to the system between now and 2045 at a total cost of $14.5 trillion. 

The plan will add bypasses and alternative routes, in part as a hedge against disasters like the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that shut down high speed rail access to much of northeast Honshu for more than a month. Running new lines further inland also will take the trains out of tsunami range. 

The picture shows a cleaning crew bowing to greet Shinkansen approaching Tokyo Station. In conversation, people tend to drop the article “the” when referring to the bullet train, and speak of it almost as if it were a living thing.

The Japanese are working to make their country ever more resilient to disasters. They have learned that while it may not always be possible to prevent disasters, their impact can be lessened by engineering infrastructure to survive. 

Thanks to public awareness, better designs, and stronger building codes and enforcement, a very high percentage of structures and infrastructure in the area struck by the 9.0 earthquake of March 11 shrugged off the event, saved lives and continue to function. I saw damage; some commercial buildings were closed for repairs and there was widespread settlement of streets and highways, but the damage outside the tsunami zone generally was not disabling.

In Japan, earthquakes—and tsunami-—clock in several times in the average lifetime; far more frequently than extreme seismic events have been occurring in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or Memphis, Tenn, or Seattle, Wash., for example. They are no longer hypothetical in Haiti now, either, of course, after the Jan. 12, 2010 quake, but prior to that, in most people's minds there, earthquakes in Haiti were irrelevant ancient history. 

Historically, there has only been one way to prepare for natural disasters; study what has happened, and apply the lessons learned to make infrastructure more survivable and save lives before it happens again. If we are really smart we study what has happened elsewhere and apply it before it happens where we are.

That's what the American Society of Civil Engineers is trying to do by sending teams to collect data from the wreckage in Japan that it can analyze and turn into guidelines for engineers. Data acquisition is under way and the analysis has begun.