Crisis mode: UNC experts on Japan, future disasters, page 2

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Preparing for worse than the worst case

Dalton Sawyer, director of emergency preparedness and continuity planning for UNC Health Care, is monitoring how officials in Japan coordinate response and recovery efforts.

One disaster is challenge enough. But Sawyer’s Japanese counterparts are dealing with the triple whammy of a massive earthquake, a deadly tsunami and a nuclear accident.

“Each one of these disasters in isolation has the potential to require a lengthy recovery period,” he says. “When all three are combined in a single geographic area, previous recovery plans for each disaster will have to merge and overlap.”

Sawyer and others are looking at how they would react if a similar catastrophe hit close to home.

“Managers should always have contingencies for situations when reality is worse than the previously established worst case predictions,” he says. “This disastrous series of unfortunate events reinforces the absolute need for flexibility in emergency planning and hazard analysis.”

Blunting nature’s power

Gavin Smith, executive director of the UNC Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, is keeping tabs on whether preventive measures designed to blunt the deadly power of natural forces actually worked. Common hazard mitigation measures include earthquake-resilient design standards and land use regulations.

Smith and the center’s co-director, Rick Luettich, have worked closely with other experts, including Japanese scientists, on earthquake and tsunami research. They also have hosted several international panels and gatherings aimed at honing and better coordinating the research agenda in those fields.

Smith says lessons learned from the Japanese disaster will prove directly relevant to several projects he is involved in, including an assessment of the quality of state disaster recovery plans in the United States.

“The better our plans are, the faster we can distribute resources in the wake of a disaster,” Smith says. “That’s crucial for saving lives and speeding up reconstruction efforts.”

Forecasting the spread of radiation

In the U.S., a team of supercomputer experts are working to assess the wider radiation risks posed by the nuclear crisis in Japan. UNC researchers are not part of the effort, but they have ties with those involved.

Stanley Ahalt, director of the UNC Renaissance Computing Institute, says the special taskforce assembled by the National Nuclear Security Administration will provide real-time estimates on the spread of radioactive materials in the atmosphere, and what might happen to the nuclear reactors.

“There are so many factors,” Ahalt says. “Radiation levels, weather conditions, the materials involved. And coming up with good estimates takes more than just powerful supercomputers and complex algorithms – you need human experts who have experience in working on these types of problems. Fortunately, the administration’s team probably has the best tools and skills in the world.”

Counting the emotional toll

Joanne Caye, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work, says the mental trauma of the three-pronged disaster will prove taxing for the people of Japan.

In particular, Caye believes the problems with the nuclear power plants are likely to have the most impact.

“The earthquake and tsunami were very real, tragic events and the Japanese have shown incredible resiliency since they occurred,” she says. “But the issue with radiation is that it’s invisible; people can’t see the problem that they are trying to protect themselves from. The very food they eat and milk they drink may be harmful, and it’s hard for the government to say exactly at what level that harm occurs. These situations tend to make people fearful and less trusting and can have long-term negative effects.”

Caye, co-author of the book “When Their World Falls Apart,” says responders and survivors need to pay attention to both the physical and emotional effects of the disaster.

“Survivors may have trouble returning to a new ‘normal’, because their old pre-disaster normal may never occur again,” she says.

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