C-U experts monitoring situation in Japan

C-U experts monitoring situation in Japan

Japan is probably the best-prepared nation in the world for earthquakes and tsunamis, but the sheer force of the quake and its aftershocks suggests to University of Illinois experts that there is great potential for further damage.

Hussam Mahmoud of the UI Mid-America Earthquake Center, a doctoral researcher who studied the major China quake two years ago, said that he is monitoring aftershocks, each one of which is roughly equal in force to the Northridge earthquake that devastated parts of California in 1994.

Friday's initial quake was equal to a blast from 32 billion tons of TNT, he estimated.

A nuclear power plant that may be leaking radioactivity and the "scour" effect of debris have Mahmoud worried that damage may be worse than so far known.

Rob Olshansky, a professor of urban and regional planning, has written a book about Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and has spent considerable time in Japan.

"Japan would be the best-prepared nation in the world for earthquakes and tsunamis," he said, noting that the latter is a Japanese word.

"They have a lot of experience with earthquakes and tsunamis. Their building codes are similar to ours," Olshansky said.

"As far as tsunamis, they're prepared. They have giant concrete seawalls to protect harbors. They have warning systems that work very quickly to evacuate coastal areas. Still, it takes awhile to do that," he added.

Olshansky, the author of "Clear As Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans," said he has worked with Japanese researchers in the Gulf Coast to study recovery in low-lying areas.

Though Japan has mountains, it also has major cities that are situated similarly to New Orleans, which is below sea level, including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Olshansky last was in Japan about a year and a half ago. He usually goes once a year, spent 13 months there in 2004-2005 and is set to return soon.

Mahmoud said a team of UI researchers is readying to make a field investigation there soon.

Olshansky said nations can learn from each others' experience in such disasters.

He'll be attending a conference in India on the 10th anniversary of a major earthquake, which he said involves "physical characteristics extremely similar to what we would expect of New Madrid" fault in the Midwest.

Mahmoud is doing his doctoral work on characteristics of steel frames that are bolted together rather than welded together. "Japan happens to be the leading country in using this technology in buildings and bridges," said the researcher, who won an award for his work in Japan last year.

But he said that even though Japan has strict codes, with an earthquake of 8.9 magnitude and other strong aftershocks, steel gets twisted and bent, and thereby weakened.

Tsunami floods bash debris against bridges and buildings, he said, and resultant electrical shorts cause fires for days to follow, which also weaken infrastructure.

"The whole picture is still gloomy; this is one of the most destructive events in the world," Mahmoud said.

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