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Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami should serve as a wake-up call for California

by Wes Messamore, published

Japan lies devastated this weekend in the aftermath of a Friday earthquake estimated to be the most powerful to ever hit the island nation in over a thousand years. The earthquake then spawned a massive tsunami, measuring as high as 10 meters (or over 30 feet) in some places, literally sweeping away entire towns in its wake.

The scale of the destruction simply defies imagination. To get an idea, a regular contributor at has rounded up several graphic videos depicting the violence of the earthquake and accompanying tsunami. It's the video footage of swaying skyscrapers that truly boggles the mind.

When the tsunami reached the West Coast of California, there were reports of surfers out in the water hoping to catch the waves. At least one person has been confirmed dead in California as a result of the Japanese tsunami, a 25-year-old photographer who was swept into the Pacific Ocean and out to sea near the mouth of the Klamath River as he and friends were taking photographs of the incoming waves. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz county officials have estimated over $2 million in damages to the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor as wave after wave of violent water destroyed boats, docks, and moorings.

In a state that is also prone to major earthquakes, the devastation in Japan has given Californians pause this weekend to consider how well they would fare in the event of a once-in-a-millenium earthquake strike along the San Andreas fault. With the 1989 earthquake in Santa Cruz and the 2004 Parkfield earthquake, the possibility of getting hit by "the big one" has not been far from the minds of California residents and authorities.

Making sure California is prepared for such an eventuality should be of paramount concern to California policymakers. Many commentators are theorizing that Japan's strict building codes are what saved so many of its citizens' lives and put the death toll in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands. Others have focused on the brilliance of Japanese engineering to create structurally magnificent buildings that could withstand all the brute force they experienced Friday. But in order to even begin having this conversation in California and assess how prepared the state is to deal with a major earthquake, the money simply has to be there, and it's simply not.

This is how the budget crisis in California becomes a public safety issue. With so many billions sunk into corrupt and wasteful institutions, whether corporation, contractor, or union, there's hardly any left for emergency response and necessary improvements to infrastructure. With so many tax dollars going to Washington never to return to the nation's biggest donor state, Californians have to take issue with Washington's flagrant waste and corruption. Japan's emergency response was swift, effective, and admirable. Here in the United States, even the federal authorities were tripping all over themselves only a few short years ago just to bring water to Hurricane Katrina victims.

In the end, Japan withstood the worst earthquake in its modern history with a remarkably low death toll because it is a relatively affluent, modern nation with the third largest economy (though it does have a high debt load), and possesses an abundance of the resources and talent necessary to keep its citizens safe. California's fiscal policies are creating the opposite situation here- a stagnant, impoverished, backwards-moving state with a weakening economy and scarce resources. To withstand a strong earthquake in the future, California needs to build a stronger economy now.

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