On April 19, 2011, a Continental Airlines flight leaves Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., turns north-northwest and crosses into Quebec. It angles gradually westward over the southern reaches of Hudson Bay and curls gently along the upper skirts of the Northwest Territories. We have gotten that far in a little less than five hours, cruising at 525 mph. All seems ice and snow below. It is painfully bright.
My journey arises from a conversation with Kathy Caldwell, the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers on April 7 at ENR’s annual Award of Excellence dinner. It raised the possibility that I might accompany, as a journalist and documenter, an ASCE team heading to northeast Japan to gather forensic evidence on the effects of the series of tsunami that roared ashore after the 9.0 magnitude subduction zone earthquake struck off the coast of Sendai on March 11.
I was told the first of seven teams the ASCE is deploying in the next few weeks is focused on the tsunami. I proposed to report on the process the team will use to gather perishable evidence at this stage of the investigation.
I followed up by e-mail on April 12 and on April 14, while at a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., a response from ASCE said a window of April 22-26 looked best suited to my interest. A flurry of communications led to an agreement that if I present myself in Sendai, Japan, on the evening of April 21 or 22, I may accompany the team, under certain conditions. I lined up a flight to arrive in Tokyo on 4/ 20 and return on 4/27 but was unable to get a connection to the rendezvous, so last-leg travel arrangements remain in the air.
I cut short my trip in Scottsdale, had a one-day turn-around in New York and now am on my way.
The team is a few days ahead of me. According to reports beginning to emerge there are a few other groups engineers also abroad, examining, measuring, photographing and documenting the evidence left by the incredible chain of events triggered by the quake.
Although I have yet to arrive and see, in my mind’s eye a pall of uncertainty hangs over everything. My destination lies north of the U.S. State Department’s 80-km-dia. Exclusion Zone surrounding the simmering wreckage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. The Japanese government’s zone of restrictions is not as broad. Severe aftershocks have rocked the region again and again since March 11, repeatedly raising fears of a tsunami’s return. The team I hope to link up with has two digital dosimeters, personal protective gear and an evacuation plan, in case there is a fresh emergency.
The general reaction filtering out from engineers who have begun to walk the ground is one of astonishment at the height—30-meters, or 98.4-ft in one town I hear—that the sea rose, and the incredible wreckage left behind.
I am told the engineers fanning out across the wreckage are collecting evidence of wave height, velocity, momentum and power, as well as the direct effects of the earthquakes shaking. They are examining damaged, as well as surviving structures to document evidence that will help them calibrate the conditions and forces that caused them to perform as they did. They will gather data as fast as they can before the bulldozers push the evidence away, and then will return to the U.S. to parse out the forces and factors that allowed some structures to survive and others to tumble away.
Engineers say the U.S. Pacific Northwest is at significant risk of a very similar event. Hawaii knows its exposure well. Lessons learned from the perishable ruins along the Japanese coast will almost certainly yield a much deeper understanding of tsunami risk and greatly improved guidelines for engineering structures in exposed areas.
Sadly, and yet again it is a learning moment for civil engineers; it seems disasters are ever so.
At the earliest, the expert recommendations will begin to flow in a couple of months, but in the meantime, assuming I get to my rendezvous in Sendai on time, I will attempt to document what my eyes see and what the engineers say and what they are doing with this learning moment, and share it with the readers of ENR.
My digital map tells me we are keeping pace with the sun. Dawn has broken in Tokyo. We are over the Yukon.