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In Remembrance of the 2011 Japan Tsunami: A Solemn Reminder to Carry Forward

March 11, 2016

Earthquakes (the red dots) near Japan, March 9–15, and the Tsunami Travel Time map generated for the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan (Tohoku) Earthquake and Tsunami as seen in PDC’s DisasterAWARE.

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the world watched in disbelief and horror as Japan was struck by a catastrophic magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which generated a Pacific-wide tsunami with huge local waves that damaged nearby nuclear reactors. The cascading impacts from this event and the aftershocks were devastating. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami affected 368,820 people, caused 19,846 deaths, and resulted in US$210 billion in damage.*

As devastating and horrific as this event was, the toll could have been much higher had it not been for Japan’s—and the international community’s—commitment to promote and enact disaster risk reduction (DRR) practices during recent decades. Before the onset of this event, Japan was one the most active leaders in promoting DRR, and host of the 10-year Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005. Developing and agreeing on the Framework was a key international milestone in reaching a common system of coordination when hazards strike.

Actively promoting DRR and implementing goals of the Framework, by March 2011, Japan had taken numerous steps to reduce disaster risks and limit impacts. Advances in early warning systems, hardening of infrastructures, risk assessment, and community preparedness could not stop the events, but they all helped to reduce losses. In part because of these steps taken, the international community was quick to respond to the crisis given the scale of the disaster facing Japan.

Shakemap and damage for the March 11, 2011, event in Japan. According to USGS, this event is the fourth largest earthquake since 1900.

For its part, Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) was among the very first to assist in relief efforts, providing information products on the extent and severity of impacts, joining and supporting efforts of the international humanitarian community.

With well over a decade of innovation in technologies aimed at DRR practices, PDC had released its free-to-public Disaster Alert mobile app for iOS in 2010. Weeks before the event, in February 2011, an Android version was released. The multi-hazard tracking app which had seen about 75,000 downloads days before the earthquake, reached half a million downloads within a week as public hunger for reliable information about the event and the aftershocks grew. Currently, the app is helping to notify and inform a global audience of nearly 1.6 million about the hazards they may face.

At the same time, the Center’s EMOPS (Emergency Operations), a state-of-the-art internet-based hazard monitoring and decision-support platform, was already being heavily used by U.S. and international partners to assess disaster situations, and to coordinate, communicate, collaborate, and share information regarding relief operations. For weeks following the disaster, the Center staff was working with partners around-the-clock to produce custom maps and products for use in the relief operations.

This is a sample of the PDC Weather Wall report from September of 2011. PDC’s Senior Weather Specialist Glenn James, who has worked at the Center since its inception and helped to develop the PDC Weather Wall, was presented the 2015 Dr. Arthur N. L. Chiu Award for Hurricane Preparedness in 2015.

While Japan continued to engage in relief and recovery efforts, PDC provided nonstop coverage for hazards happening around the world, and worked toward addressing information gaps facing communities. Later in the year, the PDC Weather Wall was released to provide a new public-information resource site. This regularly updated blog has become a valued global resource covering tropical cyclones throughout the world’s oceans and seas, as well as other weather and hazard related news.

VinAWARE in 2011. This was the first DisasterAWARE system to implement foreign language technology. At present, the interface is available in Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, and Spanish, helping to ensure its effective use in as many parts of the world as possible.

Additionally, in that same year, PDC successfully tested and released the first foreign-language early warning and decision support system, a version of DisasterAWARE, and expanded its global (national-level) Risk and Vulnerability Assessments, and also started integration of biological hazards into the platform. Today, a rich set of health-related data appear alongside global risk and vulnerability indices, infrastructure, climatic, demographic, economic, and geographic information layers available in DisasterAWARE. 

DisasterAWARE in 2016 allows health monitoring through an easy-to-use “Dashboard,” integrating BioServ technology with global risk and vulnerability indices, infrastructure, climatic, demographic, economic, and geographic information layers.

As all of the events of 2011 unfolded, PDC continued to focus its energies and resources on anticipatory sciences and evidence-based, informed decision-making for disaster risk reduction. Today, PDC products and services reach nearly two million people around the world, including disaster management professionals using DisasterAWARE platforms for the safety of nearly 1.6 billion people. The Center continually works with disaster managers and decision makers to understand unique needs, close gaps, and reduce the risks of hazards worldwide.

Five years after the horrific East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, radiation discharge continues at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. So do assessment and recovery efforts. While reportedly conditions have improved, full recovery is expected to take another 30 to 40 years.

Today, as we recall and applaud the international community’s efforts and the progress made toward DRR, we remember the victims of the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami events. Acknowledging PDC’s heart-felt contributions of the last 20 years, we are reminded how much more is yet to be done all around the world and why it is that we do what we do.

* Figures for the day of the earthquake only, which do not include the weeks and years following the initial disaster. Nonetheless, the impacts continue today. According to, an association dedicated to promoting understanding of nuclear energy, “over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes” around the power plant and “there have been well over 1,000 deaths from maintaining the evacuation.” Other reports from various sources, including Japan Reconstruction Agency (RA), continue to add to the numbers of related deaths, the damage total, and the count of people affected.

Read more anniversary news:
A 20-year Journey of Hope
Determined to Make a Difference in the Fight Against Hazards

For more information:
• View PDC’s earthquake or tsunami resource pages

More from Pacific Disaster Center

To keep yourself up-to-the-minute about hazards and disasters:

For the latest Weather and Disaster News, use the PDC Weather Wall.

While you are thinking of hazards, think of preparedness. PDC provides disaster preparedness information, including printable instructions for assembling a Disaster Supply Kit and rehearsing a Family Disaster Plan.

For more information on DisasterAWARETM products:

  • For details, see the Training Guide for Web-accessible Disaster Alert,
  • Read and understand more about custom versions, such as DMRS and VinAWARE,
  • Watch the ASEAN DMRS video on YouTube.

About PDC:

Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) envisions a safer, more secure world—where populations live in more disaster-resilient communities informed by science and technology, and equipped with sound decision support tools. To help make that vision a reality, PDC is dedicated to supporting evidence-based disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts by providing actionable information and applications to the public and disaster managers worldwide. PDC, a program managed by the University of Hawaii, was established by the U.S. government in 1996.