Return of the Guru

Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami: Let the Blame Game Begin

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, March 14, 2011

When the unthinkable suddenly intrudes into reality, we are at a loss to explain it, much less to deal with it. Thus, when one of the worst-ever combinations of earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan last week, it was no surprise that many were looking for someone or something to blame.

In a March 13, 2011 article on NewsDaily, an online news site, a number of Japan’s residents were interviewed about their reactions to the catastrophe. “Letters to the editor printed in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper Sunday ran through a range of emotions, from praising the spirit of extending helping hands to strangers to fuming why infrastructure could collapse in this technologically advanced country,” the article notes.

Of course, it’s only human for us to try to make sense out of such a devastating loss of lives and property, and it is no surprise in this Internet age that technology should be the scapegoat. In an incredibly short period of time—say 40 years—the civilized world has come to depend so utterly on the advantages of technology that when our best tech minds and efforts fail to stop a disaster, we are in complete disbelief. So we fume at what we see as inadequate technology efforts, or insufficient funding of such efforts or ineffective people who are in charge of the efforts.

Technology is rapidly becoming the answer to every known problem mankind faces, but when technology fails, we are left grasping at straws and reacting emotionally. In the NewsDaily article, Naohiro Hoshina, a 47-year-old worker with a shipping company in Fujisawa, west of Tokyo, fumed at how local mobile phone systems were brought down as a result of the catastrophe. “Isn't the basic point of having a mobile phone to make phone calls?,” he asked.

In terms of insurance, one would assume these events would be equally catastrophic for insurance companies and reinsurers, but that remains to be seen. Indeed, as noted by my colleague Bill Kenealy in an INN posting: “According to RMS data, commercial and industrial lines [in the affected areas] are significantly under-insured, with many large corporations insuring their properties on an indemnity basis only, with no loss of profits or earthquake insurance. Moreover, many small businesses and households in Japan are completely uninsured.”

Will insurers point to technology failures as the culprit here? The answer to that question depends on how much they buy into the idea that technology, properly administered and applied, really can solve any problem and avert any disaster. As noted earlier, Japan is noted for its advanced, earthquake-related technology, based, obviously, on the need for any and all measures to protect lives and property due to the extreme geological instability in that area of the world. Apparently, though, their best efforts were not enough.

Were there technological foul-ups that resulted in unnecessary losses, and that may result in more at the troubled nuclear plants in the affected area? Undoubtedly there were. But where do we then point the finger? Do we blame poor software, bad software designers, human error, hardware failure, inadequate planning, uncaring politicians or incompetent onsite workers? There are plenty of targets for the fickle finger of blame, but how about if we apply a little common sense here?

Yes, the vaunted earthquake- and tsunami-related technology and its application in Japan were probably not perfect, but perhaps we need to focus on the fact that this region experienced, as a Reuters article describes it, “a triple blow of earthquake, tsunami and one of Japan's worst nuclear accidents.” Maybe we have to admit that we have foolishly placed modern technology on a godlike pedestal, only to see a catastrophic event of this magnitude rudely knock it off.

Sometimes things just happen, and there is nothing we poor humans can do to prevent them, or to minimize the damage. To say this tragic event was totally unexpected, however, would be disingenuous, given all we know about the likelihood of earthquakes in that region.

As one interviewee in the NewsDaily article observes, “We're worried about what will happen next time, but whatever happens it won't be a surprise.”

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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