March 11th, 2011
01:34 PM ET

A crisis expert explains the earthquake in Japan

To get a perspective on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I called Robert Jensen, CEO and president of Kenyon International Emergency Services, which assists international governments, corporations and NGOs in dealing with massive disasters and recovery. Jensen has directed response efforts to numerous mass-fatality incidents from Haiti to Indonesia. Here's what he had to say:

Obviously, this is a monumental challenge

Japan faced two natural disasters of opposite types hitting at the same time: an earthquake that shook, shattered and destroyed, and a tsunami that flooded the country with sewage, sludge and mud. This was an event of massive size and scope.

Thankfully, the Japanese were well-prepared

The Japanese prepared for earthquakes with strong building codes and building standards, and through training and awareness-raising.  The Japanese are very self-resilient. They know the government cannot do everything for them, so they have done things to be prepared themselves: keeping food and water supplies, doing safety drills and exercises.

Now that the earthquake has hit, you are seeing them remain calm and putting their systems into place – evacuating damaged buildings, shutting down train systems, closing airports and closing down gas mains.

But recovery will be very difficult and require help

Right now Japan is in the life-saving, immediate-response mode, not the recovery mode. In the next several days as it moves to recovery mode, Japan will have to take care of its citizens and meet the basic needs of food, water and shelter.

The Japanese are very good at this. They’ve done it several times before.

But the scope and scale this time are significantly greater.

Japan hasn’t seen damage like this since World War II, and the country will probably have to get help from their neighbors. This would be primarily logistical help – getting food, water, enough structural engineers and equipment.

Multiple countries in the area have small teams that can help, whether it’s China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea or the United States. With a crisis of this scale, no country can do everything by itself.

And it carries huge long-term costs

Japan was about to face a huge switch in vehicle manufacturing – a large movement from gas-powered engines to electric engines. Electronic vehicles don’t have nearly the same components as gas vehicles.

You’re now going to have to divert resources to rebuilding homes and businesses. On top of that, you're adding another cost by helping the families that lost a wage earner. So it’s not going to be easy.

We should learn from prior disasters: Give generously, and don’t forget about Japan

There are huge lessons to draw from Indonesia, New Zealand and Haiti. There aren’t any new lessons.

First, countries should be watching the level of preparation that Japan has and put it into place themselves, because the world is not becoming calmer and safer.

Second, countries should offer meaningful assistance, not token gifts.

Finally, people should remember this won’t be over tomorrow. This will not go away in six months. Too often, cameras rush in for two weeks after a crisis and then leave.  But recovery is a marathon that starts with a sprint; have no doubt, this will be a very long marathon.

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