Lessons learned: Two years after Japan's earthquake & tsunami

Lessons learned: Two years after Japan's earthquake & tsunami

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Today marks two years since the tremendously powerful earthquake struck near Japan – triggering a massive tsunami. At 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, 2011 the magnitude 9.0 quake struck. The subsequent tsunami is estimated to have been 33 feet tall when it hit Sendai. Nearly 19,000 people were killed, and entire communities were destroyed. Two years later, 300-thousand people are still displaced. But the effects from the catastrophe are far reaching – and Hawaii has learned some valuable lessons from the devastating event.

Experts say no one expected a magnitude 9.0 earthquake to ever hit Japan-- so their evacuation zones were too small and the devastation it caused was great. Which is why geophysicists in Hawaii say they now know they need to look back at lease a thousand years if they want to predict what could happen here.

"The lesson of Tohoku is well, could they be even bigger still? How much slip can you get? How big of a wave can you get?" explained  Dr. Rhett Butler, an Adjunct Geophysicist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  "Those are the things we're looking at, because we want to make sure the evacuation zones are sized properly for whatever can happen."

In addition to the refinements experts have made to existing systems, new technologies have also improved tsunami modeling, like rift animation.

"We can compute very quickly what the tsunami is likely to be like.  We can actually produce this during the tsunami so we can see what happens-- this animation showed us that in fact, you get significant energy," described Dr. Gerard Fryer, the Senior Geophysicist with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

While Japan's past is helping Hawaii better prepare in the future, it's what's happening now that experts say we can't do much about. Approximately 1.5 million tons of debris is still floating around in the aftermath of the tsunami-- and much of it is washing ashore along our coastlines.

"Most of the debris -- well, pretty much all of the debris washed into the ocean before the disaster at the Nuclear plant, so that's a common question that comes up -- is there a radiation hazard? But there is none expected," said Larissa Leroux, an outreach specialist with the International Pacific Research Center.

While there may not be concerns about contaminants, there are very real consequences for Hawaii's wildlife.  Everything from toys to a lighter and pieces of a garbage bag have been discovered inside the belly of albatross and lancetfish.

"Morally, this is terrible. How is this possible. Majestic, beautiful, far ranging birds, in a pristine place of the Pacific, the northwest Hawaiian islands, you open them up and this is what you find," said Professor David Hyrenbach of Hawai'i Pacific University.

As for the clean-up process in Japan, officials estimate it could take up to a decade-- and that doesn't take into account the recovery affected by the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster. Much of the area within a 12-mile radius is still off-limits. In coastal communities, fishing bans remain in effect until radiation read ins return to safe levels.

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