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A lesson in crisis

March 29, 2011
Takako Day speaks Tuesday afternoon during NIU's teach-in on the Japanese disaster.

Takako Day speaks Tuesday afternoon during NIU's teach-in on the Japanese disaster.

Tuesday’s “teach-in” on the crisis in Japan drew an audience of about 100 students, faculty and staff members who heard a panel of experts talk on a range of subjects, from how worldwide non-governmental organizations (NGO) respond to massive disasters to an account of how the nuclear crisis unfolded.

“It was very informational,” said Erika Jilka, a sophomore accounting major. “In the news, you just hear about the tragedy; you don’t hear about the science (behind) it.”

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan and has left 28,000 dead or missing, while another 245,000 people have been displaced, said Judith Hermanson, director of NIU’s new Center for NGO Leadership and Development.

Hermanson previously served as second in command of CHF International, a large NGO that provides relief and development worldwide. She directed CHF operations following the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and has led humanitarian-aid missions on five continents.

She said large scale disasters share common characteristics: chaos, confusion and vulnerability. “You can imagine, people are in a state of shock,” she said

But NGOs are skilled at responding quickly and making rapid assessments of need. Early NGO responsibilities include quickly establishing provisions for sanitation, medical assistance, child care and distribution of water and nutritious food.

“Coordination is a huge issue always,” she said, adding that many U.S. NGOs are partnering with their Japanese counterparts or affiliates.

For people who want to help: “Cash is best,” Hermanson said. She added that donors should give wisely to reputable organizations.

Takako Day of NIU’s Human Resource Services was born and raised in Japan. She said Japanese culture instills a sense of awe in nature, as well as a sense of belonging to the land. “People want to go back” even though their homes were destroyed, she said.

Areas near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, however, have been evacuated following explosions and leaks of radioactive gas. The nuclear plant lost power in the wake of the tsunami.

“One of the tricky things about nuclear power is you can’t just flip a switch and turn it off,” said NIU physics chair Laurence Lurio.

Lurio said backup power systems needed to cool the reactors helped avert a crisis that could have been much worse.

Lurio said when the plant initially lost power, a back-up diesel-powered generator kicked in. After the generator was flooded by the tsunami, the plant switched over to battery power, buying plant operators another eight hours of time to continue cooling reactors and restore primary power to the plant. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be accomplished in the short amount of time because the switching room was under water.

Still, the backup systems allowed the reactors to cool some and “made a huge difference in preventing another Chernobyl,” Lurio said.

“This is still a very serious situation,” he added, saying that plant operators didn’t foresee “a once in a millennium” natural disaster. The crisis should prompt young people especially to weigh the consequences of various means of energy production.

“This is a moment where we ought to . . . learn as much as we can from it and plan for the future,” he said. He also pointed out that Illinois has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country.

NIU geology professor Paul Stoddard said scientists, with proper equipment and observations, can predict tsunamis within minutes after an earthquake. Scientists also know some areas are more earthquake-prone, and they can predict the frequency with which large earthquakes can be expected to hit certain regions.

But predicting with certainty when and where an earthquake will strike remains an inexact science. “I doubt in our lifetimes that we will ever be able to do this,” he said.

Amy Levin, director of NIU’s Women’s Studies program, was pleased with the program for the day and the teach-in turnout. Women’s Studies and NGOLD sponsored the event.

Levin said the “teach-ins” used to be common years ago on college campuses and “this seemed like an appropriate time to bring it back.”

“I’ve been wanting to have a way that we could be more responsive to current events,” Levin said. “I’d like to try to hold these once a semester.”