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Originally published March 11, 2011 at 4:50 PM | Page modified March 11, 2011 at 5:34 PM

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Japan's tragic quake strikes close to home

Japan's extraordinary magnitude 8.9 quake is the fifth strongest recorded since 1900. Helping Japan recover and learn from this experience is part of understanding the risks and realities faced in the Puget Sound region.

EVEN the painful videos that captured the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan seem to go on forever. Images of the 23-foot tsunami wave rampaging ashore, and its debris-laden assault inland are even harder to watch.

Japan's natural disaster is a human tragedy with a special kinship here in the Puget Sound region. The extraordinary loss of life, destruction and dislocation and economic havoc are heart rending. Awareness of our own vulnerability makes the scenes all the more disturbing.

The quake 80 miles off Japan's eastern coast, and spread over a broad area, ranks as the fifth strongest on record since 1900. Two days earlier the area produced a 7.2 magnitude rattle scientists describe as a forequake.

Orders of magnitude take on extra meaning with the 10th anniversary of the Feb. 28, 2001, Nisqually quake. Seattle Times reporter Sandi Doughton explained how scientists have spent the past decade documenting a growing list of hazards and risks. Ten active faults have been added to the two known faults in 2001.

Japan's 8.9 quake was 10 times more powerful with each point higher than the 6.8 Nisqually quake. Estimates of the energy released are even bigger. Our region is vulnerable to deep offshore quakes and shallow faults near cities, similar to conditions for the New Zealand quake in February.

Doughton reported that scientists were astounded by the number of big faults discovered in this region in the past 10 years, but they are also seeing those insights and realities inform construction and emergency planning, a federal seismic-hazard expert noted.

Early morning radio broadcasts Friday were filled with reports of coastal evacuation plans in Washington and Oregon. Even one-hour school delays were calibrated to tsunami warnings.

Literally building earthquake considerations into future construction planning is unavoidable. Those efforts need to be guided by science, engineering and a measure of humility. Countries with a history of devastating quakes, such as Japan and Chile, responded with new construction standards only to see them bested by ever violent temblors.

Japan's nuclear reactors are getting special attention after Friday's earthquake. Many have been shut down, and some are experiencing problems with their cooling systems. Flooding, fires and collapsed buildings all took their toll.

The international response with technical assistance and humanitarian aid is building. After doing what can done to comfort the afflicted, the scientific inquiry must begin. Puget Sound has very real reasons to pay close attention to the lessons learned.

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