Typhoon “Haiyan” (translated: “ocean swallow [the little bird]”) may have been the most devastating typhoon on record. But nations vary in their ability to cope with disasters.
When I left central China in the summer of 1998, it began raining for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights. Soon more than 233 million people were temporarily dislocated along the Yangtze River. Five million houses were destroyed (double the houses in Kansas). Their army—operating similar to our National Guard—evacuated people. But the rain kept falling.
They could lose their huge industrial city of Wuhan. They needed to blow more dikes upstream to spread the water out. Their Army pulled in with trucks and told the citizens of a city of a half million that they would have to load up immediately. The dikes would be blown the next day at noon. Everyone cooperated. They “swallowed their bitterness” and left most of their possessions behind.
I visited Wuhan in 2001 and they showed me how close the rains had come to breaching their dikes. They were thankful for the sacrifice of that upstream city. It was rebuilt—newer, higher, better.
In May of 2008, I stepped off the plane in Beijing and into a China where 1.3 billion people had come to a dead stop and total silence to honor the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake. Rescue was still underway. I lectured at universities by day and watched the rescue efforts by television at night.
Within four hours after the massive 8.0 earthquake, paratroopers had loaded up. Premier Wen Jiabao was in charge of the rescue effort, not just because he was Premier, but because he was trained in geomechanical engineering at the Beijing Geological Institute. The Chinese had confidence that his decisions would be the right technical decisions, made with the head, not with the heart. He cleared the roads and put land-moving equipment first, then ambulances.
But for immediate relief, parachuting in or jumping from hovering helicopters was their only option—there was no flat land. All army engineers were sent in with a week’s rations. Those rations were gone in two days because they shared their food with the people they rescued. More food was dropped.
President Hu and Premier Wen visited tent-making factories to stress that quality would not be forfeited for speed. Army trucks brought raw materials and took away tents around the clock.
It was still a month before the final school exams. Schools were “Job One.” Blue tents for families.
Solid blue pre-fabs for schools. They went up in days. The whole country watched tensely on television and saw that schoolchildren had no books, paper or pencils. A massive movement was launched to provide school backpacks with these supplies. Trucks laden with backpacks filed in behind the military supply trucks. Within days the surviving children were walking to pre-fab schools with new backpacks. Where schools could not be built, children were put on trains and sent across China to finish school in more crowded classrooms.
The devastation was astounding: 69,197 confirmed dead; 374,176 injured; 18,222 missing. 4.8 million people—equal to the whole populations of Kansas and Nebraska—were homeless. But there was no rioting, No one lacked water or food. And no one froze for lack of housing that winter.
The Philippines will need to spend 6 billion U.S. dollars to rebuild after Haiyan. China spent over 166 billion U.S. dollars to rebuild cities and universities.
Japanese pre-planning for earthquakes, and their handling of tsunamis is no less impressive.
By comparison, America’s disaster response has been pitiful. Katrina was an American disgrace. Haiti remains an international debacle.
We knew beforehand the New Orleans dikes were inadequate. Today we refuse to reinforce the San Francisco schools when we know another big earthquake is overdue. But in China, the Three Gorges Dam ensures that Wuhan will not face another threat from floods.
In times of emergencies, we cling to civilian bureaucracies, with unclear lines of command, that require hours and days for consensus-building—that time costs lives. Only a military operation can make the minute-by-minute decisions that save lives in a natural disaster.
Asians also have a respect for scientists and engineers that simply is missing in Western culture. We could never evacuate all of Wichita and Topeka in one day in order to save Kansas City.
Societal values and planning ahead are just as important as governmental structure in times of disaster. Unless Western culture changes, the safest place for you to be in the next major disaster—is in China or Japan.