The Triple Disaster Part 3: Lessons Learned

This is part three in a series about the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster in Japan.


When I reflect back to March 2011, what I remember most was the feeling that the entire world had shrunk to the size of the conference room we were using for a crisis management center.


Here are some of the key lessons I learned:

1. You can’t take care of anything if you haven’t dealt with your own self and your family.  I had not planned to evacuate my family at all, knowing we were probably not in any danger in Tokyo, but because infrastructure was in disarray, their schools were cancelled, and I had to relocate to Osaka to start up our backup center, I ended up sending them to Hilo to stay with my brother for a few weeks.  That gave me much needed breathing space to focus on the crisis without worrying about them.

2. Communication isn’t just nice, it isn’t just necessary, it’s critical.  We had 5-6 hours of conference calls with various company stakeholder groups at all hours of each day and night.  Even with things being in crisis mode, we still had to schedule a number of calls at a time that would be convenient for our corporate headquarters in Connecticut, 13 time zones away.

  • Example 1:  Our environmental director for the whole company, based in Connecticut, initially expected we would provide radiation monitors for every employee -- thousands of them.  In fact, we had exactly 10 dosimeters at our disposal.  And there was no way to get more.  We had to adjust some expectations, and the only way to do that was to talk it through on the phone over multiple sessions.
  • Example 2:  Tokyo Electric was a large and very important customer of GE’s, and GE had designed the reactors at Fukushima and built the initial plant.  Within a day after the earthquake, GE’s nuclear division set up a crisis center in Wilmington, North Carolina, to respond to customer concerns and media questions about the plant.  Unfortunately, in setting up this crisis center, they did not consider at all those of us working in Japan, and we failed to coordinate until weeks into the crisis.
  • Example 3:  My email box got so clogged up that I eventually turned to Facebook to keep my family and friends updated rather than try to communicate with loved ones independently.  I also had a large number of personal friends who were struggling to understand what was happening and what it meant to them, and I tried to get out as much information and commentary as I could, so they would have a voice they trusted.

3. Crowd sourced information is a great shortcut, but you also need experts.

  • I relied very much on the Wikipedia timeline page about the nuclear meltdown just to stay up to date on what was being said in the news.  Looking at that page now, it all seems very logical and factual, with all kinds of information added in after the fact, but at the time bits and pieces were flooding in.
  • My other big sources of information included the best weather site I could find (since we didn’t have any information at all about where the fallout was going), a crowdsourced radiation monitoring site (because all the government monitors were mysteriously offline), and a bunch of bookmarked news sites.
  • When we got the information about radioactive isotopes found in drinking water, I needed some real expertise to understand what it meant to our employees and their families.  Up to that point, Japan didn’t have any standards for radiation in drinking water.  They passed an emergency standard that was several orders of magnitude higher than the U.S. drinking water standard.  I had to make a bunch of calls, but I eventually found a wonderful expert within our company who handled the exposure monitoring for our healthcare division that manufactured cat scanners and x-ray machines.  I remember getting him out of bed at 1 a.m. in Chicago, and he quickly pulled his team together and figured out what we needed to know from a scientific standpoint.
  • There are going to be a lot of differing opinions during a crisis.  I know, it seems really obvious, but it’s going to happen and you can’t take it personally.
  • It’s critical, as a crisis manager, to stay optimistic and to really focus on moving things forward in a positive manner.
  • There is so much blaming and fear mongering in a crisis, there’s no need to get involved in that.  Staying positive allowed me to accomplish a lot more than getting bogged down in “what-if” discussions.
  • I spent 20 hours a day mostly talking to people, and during all those interactions, it was really a life affirming experience to hear about their concerns and to help them understand what was going on.

By the end of March, 2011, the Arab Spring had pushed news of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown off the front page of the New York Times, but we were still completely occupied with the logistics of managing the crisis.  I had been away from my job for too long, and my children were feeling very lonely.  It took several more weeks, but I was able to get our corporate office to send volunteers on a rotating basis to relieve me, and by the first week of April we were transitioning to long-term management of the health effects from the nuclear meltdown and to rebuilding our operations in Tohoku.  Most of our foreign expat employees brought their families back to Japan, although some chose not to return.

For an entire year after the earthquake, we had an enormous number of aftershocks, regularly more than 7.0 in magnitude.  They reminded us of just how fragile our modern life is, and a large number of foreigners and locals in Tokyo worried about what might happen if a large earthquake hit Tokyo.  My children finished their school terms and were involved in a number of volunteer efforts to assist people in the Tohoku region.  And we stayed in Japan for another full year, finally returning to California in June 2012.