If a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at the New Madrid fault line along the Mississippi River, causing massive flooding and emergencies at nuclear plants in Illinois, would the United States be better prepared to respond than Japan? Here are five ways we would.
1. GEOGRAPHY. About 500,000 people have been displaced by the Japanese disasters, about the same number of people who fled north when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. They had plenty of places to go, which made the task of feeding and sheltering them much easier than in Japan, with its land area about the size of Montana. Our Eisenhower-era highways (built in part to facilitate evacuations in the event of a nuclear emergency) may be tested to their limits, but large numbers of Americans can move quickly when they need to.
2. A MORE INDEPENDENT PRESS. In his 2009 book Tokyo Vice, American Jake Adelstein chronicles his improbable experience as a crime beat reporter in some of Tokyo's most dangerous precincts. We meet plenty of hard-working, courageous reporters along the way, but the way Adelstein describes the official press culture would make even the snarkiest American press critic thankful for our system. Government agencies lock out reporters who dare to question official policy, so many don't. According to one study conducted in the 1990s, major "press clubs" in Japan functioned as "information cartels," providing a strong disincentive for watchdogs. As Michael Hirsh notes, a hesitant press and a political culture that is not conducive to openness can be toxic additives to post-disaster response. The American media is not perfect, but its utter relentlessness -- the "Anderson Cooper" effect, where everyone with a story (of woe) gets heard, keeps the government on its toes, particularly when it comes to disasters.
3. FEDERALISM. America's disaster response mechanisms are redundant. Everyone has their own plans, and many big states assume that they'll be largely responsible for their own hides, especially after the era of Katrina. California's emergency management system is as robust as the entire country of Japan's. We've got more capacity.
4. BIG-BOX RETAILERS. In a catastrophic emergency, the thousands of Wal-Marts, Targets, Kmarts, and Krogers will become emergency distribution hubs by default. They've already got the resources, and they're starting to work with FEMA on response plans in the event of a variety of major catastrophes.
5. DHS GRANTS. Through the lens of counterterrorism, it seems ridiculous to give money to the Sioux Falls, S.D., fire department. But not when it comes to natural disasters. Billions and billions of dollars have been poured into the nation's fire and emergency management services since 9/11. Big cities get the most, but the moolah has been moved around (a benefit of having 435 congressional districts.) Better equipment and better training will make a big difference when the big one hits.
RELATED: Three Ways We're Less Prepared