Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Fukushima Dai-Ichi Doesn't Teach Us About Nuclear Power

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan has a lot of people reexamining nuclear power as a generation method. In Europe in particular, people are taking a very close look at whether continuing or expanding nuclear power generation is a good idea. If what is happening in Japan is what one can expect from nuclear power, the argument goes, we need to find some alternate sources of energy.

So let's take a look. As it turns out, if you compare the various ways you can generate power and the fatalities associated with that method -- including those due to workplace accidents, but also including those due to environmental damage (like a nuclear accident) -- the range is vast. In fact, the most lethal method of power generation has more than 4,000 times as many deaths attributed to it per terawatt hour generated as the least lethal one, and about 4.5 times as many as the second most lethal method.

It would make quite a bit of sense, given the statistics, for countries to take a good, long, hard look at this deadly form of power, and start now to take steps to eliminate it. In fact, looking at the numbers, you might expect that there would be a major initiative to shift from the most lethal to the least lethal form of power generation, which would be in everybody's best interests.

As it turns out, that's exactly what had been happening before the Japanese earthquake. You see, the most lethal way to generate electricity, as it turns out, is from coal, which accounts for about 50% of the world's electricity generation right now and causes 161 deaths per terawatt hour generated. In addition to the deaths attributable to pollution and global warming, coal generation requires coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

So, before the earthquake, many countries were looking at switching more generation over to a much less deadly form of power generation. As it turns out, the lowest fatality rate per terawatt hour in the world is nuclear power, with just 0.04 deaths per terawatt hour, even taking into account the Chernobyl disaster and other smaller incidents. Even wind energy has more than 4 times this death rate -- caused by turbine blades flying off and workers falling from turbines.

So why are we so upset about nuclear power right now? Why can we muster opposition to even continuing to use the plants we have, let alone building new ones, but nowhere near the push to switch from coal to something -- anything -- else?

First of all, deaths related to coal generation are often invisible. When people die early because of respiratory problems, it doesn't make the news as being "coal-related." These deaths are spread out around the world, and the connection to electricity generation is not terribly obvious. Even when miners die in a mine collapse and it does get a lot of attention, this is generally seen as relating to mine safety, not to power generation. It's much easier to blame mine owners than it is to blame ourselves for using so much power in the first place or tolerating coal-burning plants.

With nuclear power, on the other hand, accidents are big news. This is in part because they really are very rare, but also because the environmental damage is much greater for a small pollution incident. Think about it. If we paid the kind of attention to a tiny seepage of coal smog that we are to the problems at Fukushima, we'd do nothing but talk about coal plants all day long. Unlike coal, which releases a continuous stream of pollutants into the air all the time, the release of nuclear material is much more unusual and much more deadly.

And that's the problem. We don't tend to react to overall averages when we think about deaths and risks. We react to what's going on right now. If every nuclear power plant released radiation the way the Fukushima plant is doing now, and they did it day in and day out, 365 days a year, it would really be catastrophic. The thing we're missing when we say that because of this accident nuclear is too dangerous is that, in fact, every nuclear plant doesn't do that, and even at worst they won't.

Does that mean there's nothing to learn here? Of course not. The safer nuclear plants can be made, the better. Same goes for reducing pollution from coal and making mines safer. And if we can figure out a way to generate power that never kills anyone, I'm all for it. But if we're going to make energy policy, maybe we should consider making it based on the complete facts, and not just what we're scared of today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Soldiers are People Too

Yesterday morning, an F-15 Eagle Fighter crashed in rebel-held territory in Libya. The crew safely ejected and was rescued. Yesterday morning, NPR had some snippets from an Egyptian doctor who happened to be staying in the hotel where one of the crew members was brought. She was asked to treat him, but he pretty much only had bumps and bruises. The doctor commented that although the pilot was basically unhurt, he needed someone to sit with him because he was anxious and unsettled.

Our servicemen and women go through a lot of training, and they're very good at what they do. Pilots are trained on how to eject during a crash, and this crew clearly utilized that training. Anyone who flies in the military has considered the possibility that they're going to either be shot down or crash for some other reason. This isn't completely unforseen.

It pays to remember, however, that training for what to do and considering it ahead of time is very different than actually doing it. Servicepeople train so they can do the job, and so panic will not be added to the emotional stress of the situation. But you can't prevent people from feeling stress at all. The training these pilots had was like an emotional bullet proof vest -- it prevented this crash from completely overwhelming them. But people who get shot while wearing Kevlar will tell you that it still hurts, and can knock you down. It's not unreasonable for them to need a little help getting back up.

We tend to look at situations like this and think, "Well, that's their job," and, of course, it is. But even if it's your job to be in danger, there are times that are just plain scary, regardless. You might be prepared for them. You might handle them just right. But you're going to feel it when you're done. This might be a good time to remember that the men and women who serve in the military are still, first and foremost, people.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Is Kyron's Law a Good Idea?

Last June, 7-year-old Kyron Horman disappeared from his elementary school without a trace. All eyes have been focused for quite some time on his stepmother in connection with his disappearance, but no arrests have been made and she remains a free woman and, for all I know, an innocent one. Now there is a push to put surveillance cameras in all elementary schools in Oregon, under a proposed law dubbed "Kyron's Law." Kyron's own school got cameras shortly after he disappeared, funded by a private citizen.

As a school administrator, there have been many times I wished I had video footage of an incident. The "he hit me first" thing gets very old, very fast. As more and more kids have cell phones, there have even been a couple of times when kids recorded an incident themselves, although more often than not the person recording was doing so to post it on YouTube, not to aid in the investigation.

One might argue that, had their been cameras in Kyron's school the day he disappeared, he might have been found by now. But I think that those who advocate for putting in surveillance cameras would go a step further, arguing that either he wouldn't have disappeared or that he definitely would have been found right away. That is, most likely, not true.

Surveillance cameras in schools give people, and particularly parents, a false sense of security. Because they might prevent some problems, we think they prevent all problems. But surveillance cameras are problematic themselves.

First of all, no matter how many cameras you install, there will most likely be someplace the cameras aren't. This is how most of us want it, because as much as we want to protect our kids, we don't want someone filming them in the bathroom or the locker room. This raises a larger issue, which is that there is a need to balance privacy with safety, and parents tend to be a stickler for both.

Second, if there are cameras and someone wants to snatch a kid or otherwise harm him, that person will go where the cameras aren't. That means that while the hallways and classrooms and buses may be safer, the bathrooms and locker rooms are more dangerous. In the case of Kyron Horman, if indeed his stepmother is responsible, she simply would not have used the school as her "alibi."

Third, and this is the toughest one for parents to wrap their heads around, we can't watch our kids 24/7. We do our best to keep them safe, and at some point we have done all we can. At night, when my kids are asleep in their rooms, I assume they are asleep in their rooms. I don't have a camera there, I don't sleep on the floor, and I don't check on them all that often. Could they disappear? Yes. Is that likely? No.

The fact of the matter is that Kyron's disappearance made the news because it was so rare. Kids do not disappear from school in the middle of the day. They disappear, if they disappear, from the neighborhood or the bus stop or walking to or from school, or even from their homes. But they don't go missing from their schools because that is actually a pretty hard place to snatch a kid. And putting in cameras may make it even harder, but is that really where you want that money to go? You can almost certainly do more to protect children by putting another layer of wood chips on the playground of every school, or posting another adult on their walking route. And that doesn't even take into consideration what educational use that money could be put to.

Once again, we, as parents, have to face up to the fact that dropping off our children at school is an act of faith. We also have to face the fact that parents are really not any better at protecting children than schools are. If Kyron's stepmother harmed him, the greatest risk he faced was not going to a school with no cameras, it was living with a family with her in it. And while cameras might have brought her to justice, they wouldn't have changed that risk factor one bit.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is There Going to Be a War?

When I was just shy of 12 years old, the British and Argentina got into a spat over the Falkland Islands. If you are a) British or b) Argentinian, this was probably a very big deal. For the rest of the world, not as much, to the point where, if you were not alive then you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. And while I don't remember much about the particulars, I do remember, as the tensions rose, a very serious conversation I had with my father.

We were walking through a museum -- I remember that distinctly -- and I told my father I was scared. I had heard on the news that there was this argument between these two countries, and the newscaster had said they were on the brink of war. From my point of view, there had never been a war in my lifetime, and I was really afraid.

Looking back, I suspect my father didn't know where to start. It's not that he couldn't explain the tension between Argentina and the UK. It's probably not even that he couldn't give some good predictions about what would happen between the two countries. The problem is that, in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as in the first half of the twenty-first, there is no good definition of what is and is not a war.

I bring this up, because the United States, along with several allies, has started air strikes in Libya. And even now, at the age of 40, I have a visceral reaction of, "Oh, no, I hope this doesn't become a war," followed by, "Wait, maybe it already is." In fact, last week my own 12-year-old asked me if the fight between Gaddafi's forces and the protester/rebel/opposition fighters was "at the point of becoming a war." I had no answer.

Technically speaking, the U.S. has not been at war since World War II. That was the last time the United States Congress exercised its constitutional power to declare war. Congress has authorized the use of military force since then, the President has ordered the use of force without Congressional authorization, and the U.S. has participated in military action authorized by the United Nations. In my lifetime, our troops and/or planes have fought in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan Somalia and Libya, and that's just right off the top of my head. But we have not been at war. At the Veterans Administration Hospital where I'm currently doing an internship, we talk about OEF/OIF vets, referring to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but not to the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

While historians and legal scholars probably have a lot to say on the difference between declaring war and just fighting under some other authority, to a kid this is a distinction without a difference. To most young people, Vietnam looks just as war-like as World War I. Wars have an almost mythological status for kids, and probably for some adults, in which a switch is thrown and what was "fighting" becomes "The War" and everything is much, much worse.

So when a child asks whether there is going to be a war, what they are really asking is whether the conflict is going to affect their lives. Will their parents be called up. Will there be rationing. Will there be attacks on U.S. soil. Will people they know be killed. For children whose parents are in the service, the answer to "will there be a war" with Libya may well be yes. To most other kids in the United States, the answer is most likely no.

There was, in case you've forgotten, a war in the Falkland Islands in 1982. If I hadn't listened to the news, I would never have known anything about it. There was a war, but there wasn't a war the way I understood the term. In fact, I think 1982 may well have been the last time I actually had a working definition for what a war is.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Japanese Crisis: Assessing the Need Stateside

The attention of most of the country continues to be across the Pacific in Japan. The loss of life is horrific. The material damage is enormous. The fear regarding the radiation in Fukushima is mounting.

Now is not the time for a psychological crisis intervention in Japan. The situation is still unfolding, and there are still significant basic physical and safety needs to be met. The best that can be done from a mental health standpoint in Japan right now is managing people's fear. Both the Prime Minister and the Emperor appear, from this vantage point, to be doing a pretty good job at exercising resilient leadership. The consistent emphasis on coming together and getting through this is good practice.

What about folks in the U.S.? Is there anything we can or should be doing for people here? I think there is.

First of all, everyone in the world needs some decent information about the radiation risk. With the exception of nuclear scientists, most of us have very little understanding of how much radiation is too much, how the current accident will affect people in Japan and whether it will affect anyone anywhere else at all. The news media is doing a somewhat better job of bringing in experts to explain this to us, but I think it would help if they acknowledged that none of us like hearing that there's any radiation at all, and that the biggest impact here is from fear, not nuclear byproducts.

People here who have family and close friends in Japan, particularly in the area where the quake and tsunami were, need something a little more. I think you could further separate that group into two -- those who come from Japan and have roots there, and those who don't trace their roots to Japan but have family studying or visiting there. Last Friday was ghastly for both of these groups, and it would not be surprising if they're feeling the affects even now, presuming that they now know how their loved ones fared in the quake.

For those who come from Japan, this incident is not, in some ways, over. The pictures the rest of us see and think are horrible are more personal. They may have lost homes or other special places. They may not be ready, yet, to process through their feelings and try to put them away.

For those who had family visiting or living in Japan but are not themselves Japanese, the incident is largely over and they are probably ready for some intervention. It would be totally understandable if they are having some issues with feeling irritable, having trouble concentrating, not sleeping well or having intrusive thoughts about the quake and the agonizing wait to hear from loved ones. They need to know they're normal -- it's the situation that isn't.

Then there is that group that is somewhere in a no man's land in between. They are from Japan, every picture is personal, the situation is ongoing, and they also experienced the traumatic death of someone they love. For them, some understanding and moral support is in order until the dust can settle a little more and they can start to come to terms with all of this.

I wrote yesterday about my son's friend, Taro. When I wrote, I wasn't sure which category Taro fell into. Late yesterday we confirmed that he is in this last category. He lost his grandmother and his home. The only bright side, perhaps, is that young children don't really understand death and loss as permanent things. But his family does, like so many other families in Japan, here and elsewhere. The latest estimate I've heard is 10,000 dead. That's a lot of people in limbo, waiting for this to be over so they can grieve.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan -- The Kid Version

As many of you know, I have a 5-year-old son. As you may also know, I believe strongly in talking to children about traumatic events if they affect your family, if they are going to hear about them from somewhere else, or if you are very affected by them. Since my husband, my 12-year-old and I are talking a lot about Japan and it is all over the news, I have been talking to my 5-year-old as well. This seemed especially important since he has a little friend in his kindergarten class whose family is from Japan. I'll call him Taro.

My son knows about earthquakes. He heard about the one in Haiti, and that learning was reinforced when I went to Haiti to do some intervention work with kids last summer. His class also recently learned a little about plate tectonics, and his science fair project involved modeling how mountains form using sheets of lard floating in a pan of water. So we had a starting place.

On Friday, I explained that there had been a very huge earthquake in Japan. He immediately exclaimed, "Taro comes from Japan!" He was happy about this -- he had a personal connection to a grownup thing. That's a big deal when you're five. We then talked about tsunamis, which he has also heard of from a children's book called The Magic Fan in which the hero saves the town from a tsunami because he has built a giant bridge over the village. We talked about how the earthquake starts a big wave, and how, just like water sloshing in the tub, it sloshes one way and then sloshes the other. In this case, it sloshed all the way to Hawaii and California.

Interestingly, my son seemed to completely miss the idea that this was a scary thing. He's in the stage of his life where science is very cool and big things moving in the earth are even cooler. He does not connect that real people just like him live where all this is happening. It's like a cartoon to him, and that's probably just as well. His comment after I explained all of this was, "On Monday, I will tell Taro that there was a big earthquake and tsunami in Japan." I suggested that Taro might already know.

Over the weekend, my son asked what a nuclear accident is. This feeds into another parenting principle -- if they're asking, you need to answer. But explaining nuclear power to an adult is hard enough, let alone a kid. I explained it this way:

There are lots of different ways to make electricity. A lot of times, to make electricity you need something very hot. Often they use fire by burning coal or gas. Another way to make something very hot is called nuclear reaction. They take two chemicals and they bang them together, and it makes a whole new chemical and it gets very hot. The chemicals are dangerous, so they keep them in a strong container so they won't make anyone sick.  After they use the chemicals to make the electricity, they're still hot, so they put water around them to cool them down.

In Japan, they had a very smart system. As soon as there was an earthquake, the chemicals stopped banging together. That was really good thinking. But the earthquake broke the part that puts water around the chemicals to cool them down. So they are really, really hot and people are worried because they might melt the strong container and let some of the chemicals out, and people could get very sick from that.

This explanation is not very precise, but I thought it wasn't bad for a five-year-old's purposes, and my son seemed satisfied.

This morning, I asked him if he had talked to Taro about the earthquake. He replied, somewhat dejectedly, "Yeah, he already knew about it." I said I wasn't surprised, and that I guessed Taro's family was very worried. I said (and kicked myself for not saying earlier), "A nice thing to say would be, 'I heard about the earthquake. I hope your family is OK.'" Then, out of nowhere, my son said, "Taro says his grandmother was swept away in the tsunami. He also says that his house is gone and he doesn't know where he will live when he goes back to Japan."

Now, let me say up front that I have no idea if this is true. I don't know if Taro said it, and if he did, I don't know if he meant it. It is not at all unusual for kids -- either Taro or my son -- to "try on" a tragedy to experiment with what it would feel like or mean if it were true. Of course, it might be true. My son said that this was a discussion he had with Taro after school at daycare, so it wasn't at all clear to me that the adults knew about it. I put in a call this morning to my son's teacher and left her a message to let her know, in case she didn't, that either this family has suffered a terrible loss or that the kids are trying this trauma on for size. This triggers yet another principle -- if the kids are talking about it, you need to be talking about it too.

My son is still not too phased by the situation. He knows about it, and he knows it touches his friend. It certainly matters to him. But it's about at the level of the extinction of the dinosaurs in his mind. It happened, but it so remote from his experience that there's no real need to worry about it. I don't know about you, but I find myself wishing I could feel that way sometimes, too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Plain Talk About Fukushima

The headlines coming out of Japan today are alarming.  "Authorities scramble to avert meltdown." "Fukushima second worst nuclear accident in history." "Meltdown probably underway at Fukushima." Are you scared
now? How about, "Radioactive releases in Japan could last months?" Obviously, things are bad. How bad? Well, you know, bad. If that seems inarticulate, consider this. As I write this, authorities around the world are bickering about whether the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan is a level 4 or level 5 incident. Oh my goodness. Level 5.

The very fact that we can't articulate any relative level of "badness" may give you some insight into just how hard it is to have decent crisis communications in this situation and, frankly, how unhelpful the media reporting has tended to be. What's a level 4? What's a level 5? What does it mean to the people near the plant? What does it mean to me?

Why is it so hard to get good, straightforward information from the media about this accident? I think there are three major reasons: sensationalism, science and subconscious.

For starters, these headlines are sensationalistic. Sensationalism sells papers and gets web hits. They want to draw you in, and it works, so they keep doing it. It's hard to summarize the scientific nuances of the situation in five catchy words.

This brings us to science. The science here is way beyond what the average American truly understands. Summarizing it quickly for the purposes of crisis communication is pretty nearly impossible. This is especially true because we want the people who really understand this stuff to be working on containing the accident, not explaining it to us.

This leaves us to fend for ourselves, and we have a problem. Our subconscious (ok, that's a stretch, but I needed an "s" word for the alliteration) does not like the notion of a nuclear accident. Those of us of a certain age were reared on the notion that the United States and the USSR were going to blow each other to nuclear smithereens, and that we would all die from radiation poisoning if we survived the initial blast. When we we hear "explosion" and "nuclear" and "radiation," the memory of those lessons is stored in the particular file drawer in our minds which gets opened. It gets worse, because when we hear "nuclear," "explosion" and "Japan," our associations are with horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But let's try to put the hysteria to the side for one moment and figure out what those of us who are not nuclear physicists can actually figure out. Thus far, this is a level 4 or 5 accident. These levels come from the International Nuclear Events Scale, which goes from 0 to 7. A 0 means it has no detectable implications. A 7 is Chernobyl, the only 7 ever to happen. A 4 is a local impact event, and a 5 is an accident with wider consequences. By way of comparison, the Three Mile Island accident was a 5. That probably doesn't help a whole lot, but it's a start.

If you'd like a really good look at why we are so bad at understanding the risk here and why the notion of it going on for a long time is so distressing, I strongly recommend a post over at the blog of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. The fact that the author has the same last name as me is purely coincidental. I'm sure there are many, many people with the last name "Zikmund-Fisher." Well, actually, just four. This one happens to be married to me, but that's not why I'm recommending it -- it's really good.
Sunday, March 13, 2011

Now that Japan Has Your Attention, Let's Talk Preparedness

Depending on where you live, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan may or may not seem like something that can happen to you.  Here in Michigan, our chances of an 8.9 earthquake are pretty low. Even a tsunami on Lake Michigan wouldn't reach my house. But a nuclear reactor accident? Before today I didn't even know where the nearest nuclear power plant to my house was (it's about 40 miles). Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, chemical spills . . . there are a lot of reasons why you might, someday, need to either evacuate your house or shelter in place.

FEMA has been on us for years to get ready. Most of us aren't. At a recent meeting of CISM providers, the FEMA director asked for a show of hands of how many people had an emergency bag for evacuations.  Less than half of us raised our hands. Then he asked how many had a plan for evacuating their family. In a room of 800 people, I was one of two.

Make no mistake about it. When the time comes to leave your house, you will not necessarily have any time to get ready. Depending on what the disaster is, you might have a day and you might have less than 5 minutes. That's not the time to be thinking about this for the first time.

So, let's get practical. Here is a list of things you can do, roughly in order of the ease of doing them. This list is not exhaustive, nor does it take into consideration every possible catastrophe that could befall you. But it's a start. Find something on this list you haven't done yet, and do it.
  • Talk.  Seriously. Have a conversation with the other people in your house and make the following decisions:
    • Where would you meet in the event of an evacuation at a time you weren't together. Pick someplace out of the immediate area.
    • Where would you meet if that place was also evacuating.
    • Who are two people outside your area who you will call in an emergency if you can't reach each other, so they can relay messages to the others when they call.
    • If you have children and you have to evacuate during the school day, who is responsible for picking them up (if possible -- they may have to go with school personnel, keep in mind).
    • If your children are home alone, where should they go? Who is a safe person who is nearby who can help them?
  • Find out what the official evacuation route or procedure is, if there is one, for the catastrophe most likely to happen in your area.
  • Educate yourself about that catastrophe. Find out what the dos and don'ts of surviving it are. Do this even if you think you already know. Conventional wisdom may well be wrong.
  • Make sure you have a battery operated radio and a flashlight, and that everyone in the house knows how to use them. Also make sure everyone in the house knows where in the house is safest in the event of an earthquake or tornado, if applicable.
  • Make a list of the medications everyone in the house takes, both so you can grab them on your way out and so you can tell people at the shelter if you don't have your meds.
  • Make sure you keep 3 days worth of food in your house at all times. It doesn't have to be 3 days of great food, but don't let your cupboards get bare.
  • Stock up on clean water. You should have one gallon per person per day for 3 days. If you have a chest freezer, you can stick a gallon or two in the freezer, which will also save electricity.
  • Create a bag with the things you would need if absolutely everything else in the world were destroyed. This probably includes medications, vital documents, a first aide kit, and at least a little non-perishable food. Put a list in the bag of anything that isn't in there that you need to remember (e.g. your child's asthma nebulizer).
Not only will these steps help you stay safe, they will help you stay sane. In the event of an emergency, you want to be able to devote as much of your energy as possible to doing what needs to be done and not add to the crisis with your panic at not knowing what that is. Being prepared makes people resilient. That won't make a major disaster fun, but it will make it doable.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Quakes, Tsunamis, Nuclear Accidents and the Bushido Spirit

In 2004, I accompanied 12 middle school children on an exchange program for 11 days in Hikone, Japan. In case you're wondering, Hikone is southwest of Tokyo, north of Osaka, and nowhere near the major damage of the earthquake. However, all things are relative -- Japan is not that big a place. As part of our trip, I spent several nights at the home of a local school administrator, Masaru, and his wife, Kayo. We hit it off tremendously, and have kept in occasional contact ever since.

Yesterday morning, right after I heard about the earthquake, I sent an email to Kayo and Masaru, telling them we were praying for them and all of Japan and expressing our hope that they and their family were safe. This morning, I got a response. I should mention, by way of explanation, that although both of my friends speak fairly good English, they often use an automatic translator in email. I still give them credit, since I can barely order dinner in Japanese. Here is what they wrote:
Dear Naomi,
The earthquake made tsunami. And then it attacked the area of north in Japan. We felt a bit of the earthquake. All of family are safe. But over 2000 persons dead now in Japan. I worried about electric power of atomicenergy. That was broken. A lot of radioactivity was spread. A few days later or month later Japan will be more miserable. Now we are alive. Of course in future we live. But...   We hope a lot of people alive. If people are alive, we can make new Japan like Kobe city. Japanese have Bushido sprits. I believe so. Thank you so much for us to pray.
Bushido, if you're not familiar, is roughly translated as "the way of the warrior." It is the Samurai way, the basis for much of the value system that underpins Japanese society. To say that the Japanese have Bushido spirits is to say that they're tough and they'll stick this out.

This email has stuck with me all day. "We will make new Japan . . . The Japanese have Bushido spirits." Part of the mythology of this tiny, earthquake-prone country is that earthquakes happen to reorder the world. They set things to rights. They allow things to start over. In some traditional prints, money is seen in pictures of earthquakes to show the redistribution of wealth.

This view of earthquakes is very foreign to most "westerners." But it makes a lot of sense. If I never experience earthquakes, or only small ones once in a blue moon, I see them as scary and negative. If I experience them all the time, sometimes really big ones, I need to come to some peace with what they mean and why they happen. That doesn't make them fun, but that makes them bearable. This is what Japanese tradition has done for Japanese society. The whole country, in some sense, has had training in resiliency from earthquakes.

The Japanese have Bushido spirits. They will make a new Japan, as long as people are alive. Tonight, watching the news from the failing nuclear power plants, that last piece is the kicker. The Bushido spirit is needed from those scrambling to cool those cores. I hope it's enough.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Namazu Wakes: The Japanese Earthquake

In Japanese mythology, Namazu is a giant catfish who lives in the mud on the ocean floor. The god Kashima restrains Namazu with a stone, but from time to time Kashima loses focus and Namazu wakes, thrashing around and shaking the ocean floor. This morning, 80 miles off the coast of Sendai, Japan, Namazu awoke.

An earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter Scale hit northern Japan just after midnight Eastern time. The resulting tsunami devastated coastal towns in Japan, and then made its way across the Pacific, hitting many island nations, Hawaii, and the west coast of the United States. While the loss of life in the U.S. is nothing compared to what has happened and continues to happen in Japan, the damage to ports and harbors is considerable.

This is the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history. It is likely there has not been one this big in Japan for more than 1,000 years. This earthquake was almost 100 times stronger than the one that devastated the nation of Haiti in 2010.  In a country that builds and practices and prepares for "the big one," this was the big one.

While I don't mean to minimize in any way the devastation in northern Japan, the lives lost, or the very real dangers still posed by emergencies at two nuclear power plants damaged in the earthquake, it's also important to recognize the strengths present in this situation. Japan's construction standards are clearly designed to take an event like this into consideration. If you compare the destruction and loss of life in Haiti, where no such building standards existed, to what we are seeing in Japan, it is clear that Japan was as ready as you can be for something like this. The first news report I heard on the radio this morning was from a reporter standing on a balcony overlooking Tokyo. Just the fact that there is a single balcony left in Tokyo tells you how well the Japanese prepared.

The horror we feel considering what has happened in Japan, then, is very different than what we experienced after the earthquake in Haiti. In Haiti, we saw roughly 230,000 people wiped off the planet by a natural disaster and by the unpreparedness and fragility of life in abject poverty. In the United States, we suddenly knew, in a way that many of us hadn't before, that Haiti was our neighbor and that we needed to step up and help.

The horror many of us feel today is different. Far fewer people have died. Japan is much farther away. And, as I've already said, they were prepared. At the same time, we generally regard Japan as being something "like us." While the culture of Japan may be different, it is a highly industrialized, modern country. We have high expectations for their ability to function in all kinds of circumstances. So we watch what is happening there and realize that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us. In Haiti, we felt guilty. In Japan, we feel scared.

Of course, this is not a one size fits all situation. If you have family in one of these countries, have traveled there, or feel some other connection, then one of these quakes may have hit you in a particularly poignant way. I have traveled to both places and have friends in each. Not surprisingly, as I wait for word about people I know in Japan, my mind drifts to worrying about folks in Haiti I haven't heard from in a while. That's the way it is sometimes. Namazu makes connections when he wakes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

If Your Friends Told You to Jump Off a Bridge, Would You Do That Too?

We've all heard or participated in this quintessential argument between a parent and a teen.
Parent: No, you can't go to the party
Teen: But everyone else is going!!!
Parent: If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you do that too?
This is supposed to be the final blow to the teenager -- an irrefutable analogy that will make them see the error of their logic. However, today's news brings into focus the simple fact that teens don't always see the world the way adults do.

A student at Windsor High School in Sonoma County, California, was with about 45 other kids on a field trip to the Golden Gate Bridge today when a classmate dared him to climb over a four foot barrier and jump off the bridge. While classmates cheered and at least two tweeted, the boy climbed over the edge and jumped 220 feet. He suffered only minor injuries and was rescued by nearby surfers. His major problem at this point is that he may well be arrested for what he did.

What possesses kids to think that things like this are a good idea? Why would anyone dare another person to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, the most frequent place for suicides in the entire world? When well over 1,200 people have died doing something, wouldn't you think that might be a clue it's a bad idea? And what comes over those watching that they cheer rather than try to stop something like this?

This is just another in an endless string of examples that illustrate the major danger posed by the brain development of teenagers. They are big enough and independent enough to do what they want, but the frontal lobe of their brains is not developed sufficiently to think through the potential consequences of their actions. If you ask a teenager who has done something stupid why they did it, more often than not they'll tell you it seemed like fun. The possibility of the not fun consequence comes later.

This is also one of the reasons that teenagers are at high risk for suicide. Not only do they have hormonal shifts and a high rate of depression, but they have a difficult time thinking through all the implications of their death. What's more, what might be intended as a non-lethal self-injurious action or a cry for help can easily go wrong. They don't necessarily think about that possible consequence either.

Teenagers make mistakes. They are impulsive, and every one of them will do something at some point that makes their parents cringe simply because they can't think all the way through the consequences. As parents, we know this is inevitable. What we hope is that the stupid decision our child makes will not be one that kills them. This young man came a little too close for comfort.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Anomaly of a Mom Who Murders Her Teenagers

Frequent Quarterbacker Jackie sent along a link to an article from the Daily Beast about the murders of Calyx and Beau Schenecker. You probably heard about the murders when they happened at the end of January. The two teenagers -- aged 16 and 13 respectively -- were shot to death in their Tampa, Florida home. The alleged killer, who reportedly has confessed, is their mother, who attempted suicide in the same incident.

Certainly this incident is horrible and worthy of discussion in a blog about traumatic current events. But what catches my eye about the article that Jackie sent along is the headline:
Did This Mom Kill Her Kids?
The article explains at some length that it is incredibly rare for mothers to kill their teenage children. Children murdered by their mothers are almost always infants or toddlers. Teenagers murdered by a parent are generally murdered by their fathers.

The article is a decent one, exploring the unanswerable question of why this mom did what she appears to have done. Their was clearly mounting discord in the family, the mom and daughter were seeking counseling, the mother may have been using drugs and was probably depressed, and the dad had recently deployed to the Middle East with the Army. And it points out that we will most likely never know what snapped in Beau and Calyx's mother to make her kill her own children.

But the headline says something else entirely. Did this mom kill her kids? It sure seems like it. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of question as to whether she did, only as to why. So why doesn't the headline match the article.

The somewhat boring explanation is that whoever wrote the headline was doing so quickly, skimmed the article, saw the part about this being almost unheard of, and misunderstood the thrust of the article. But I think it was a little more than that.

On the whole, people are very bad at evaluating statistics and probabilities. It is this phenomenon that was at work when a friend of mine, during a research study, asked people in line for a roller coaster what their chances of dying on the ride were and several people answered "50/50." Did these folks actually think that, on average, people die on the ride half the time? That seems unlikely. They didn't understand what "50/50" means. And I think, on some level, the headline writer didn't understand what something being so rare it is basically unheard of means.

The fact that something is unheard of -- even if it has literally never happened ever before -- does not by itself mean that it hasn't happened this time. As the saying goes, there's a first time for everything. What it means is, all other things being equal, it is unlikely to be true.

But  all other things aren't equal. This mom confessed. The evidence points solely to her. The fact that she did it is notable because it's unusual. The fact that it's unusual, unfortunately, does not mean it's not true.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

In Loco Parentis -- the Houston Daycare Fire

On February 24, a kitchen fire destroyed a home day care in Houston, Texas, killing four children and injuring the other three there. All were less than three years old. The day care operator was unharmed, which is not surprising given that surveillance video shows she was shopping at Target when the fire started. She has since fled the country.

The death of a child -- any child -- for any reason is horrific. Incidents involving children are one of the types of traumatic events that automatically trigger the response of a Critical Incident Stress Management team in many fire and police departments simply because the chances are so big that the first responders will be seriously emotionally impacted by them. Children aren't "supposed" to die. That's how we believe the world works, and when they do die it shakes us up.

This event, of course, is made infinitely worse by the fact that it appears to be directly caused by someone's negligence. As much as we believe children don't die, we also believe that everyone protects children. And we certainly believe that people whose job it is to protect children at least try. If the death of a child in a car accident shakes up our worldview, the death of a child due to the gross negligence of a caregiver explodes it.

Or does it? When children are killed by their parents we are horrified, but we are not, at least from a distance, as traumatized. That's because when parents kill their children, most of us analyze the situation and judge that our own children are safe. We know that the same thing won't happen to our family because we know we will not murder our children. It's horrible, but it's easily prevented.

Which brings us around to this particular situation. Those of us with children in day care or school drop our children off each day and leave them with others who act in loco parentis, meaning "in the place of the parents." We give those caregivers the right and the responsibility to behave as parents to our children, and we believe that those caregivers will do at least a rough approximation of what we would do with regards to our kids and their well-being.

Those of us who work in schools or day cares, on the other hand, know that sometimes the expectations of parents can be unreasonable. When something goes wrong and the parents are not present, they are likely to blame us, even if, in reality, they would have done the exact same thing we did. If a child is playing in their back yard and falls and breaks their arm, the parents feel bad but recognize it as an accident. If it happens on the playground at school, they are much more likely to blame the school staff. That's because we confuse acting in loco parentis with preventing all harm to children. The former is the law. The latter is impossible.

But in this case, it wasn't impossible. Could this fire have started had the day care provider been with the children? Quite possibly. Fires happen. It could have happened in a child's home, too. Could one or more of the children have been injured or killed in such a situation? Also possible. Kids are hurt in fires under the best of circumstances. Despite our best efforts, children die.

But this wasn't the day care provider's best efforts. We will never know if that fire would have started had she been doing her job, or whether the kids would have survived it if it did. She didn't try. When we drop our kids off at day care, we do so with the belief that the person acting in loco parentis is a responsible person. We wouldn't leave them if we didn't believe that. I can only imagine the horror of finding out this way that you were wrong.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Libya, and the Fear that Comes After the Fear

Yesterday on NPR, there was an interview with Adel Idris, a Libyan man who recently escaped after being imprisoned for nine days during the current unrest in Libya. Mr. Idris describes some horrific things that he witnessed, including the torture and rape of other prisoners, and hearing the screams of women in the night. The reporter describes Idris' behavior during their interview:
He spoke to NPR for several hours about his experiences, his hands shaking, switching between broken English and Arabic. . . . . He stops talking and stares into the distance. He does that a lot during his narrative.
Later in the story, Idris describes the Libyan authorities' use of dogs on the prisoners:
What he do with me there with his dogs, I don't give up - never to give up. I not cry. I not scream. Not. [He begins to cry.] It's the first time I cry now.
What Mr. Idris describes is truly horrible, but his reaction to it is not surprising. He is exhibiting all the typical symptoms of someone who has been through a traumatic event.

When you take a class in Critical Incident Stress Management, one of the things you learn is the typical symptoms of normal, adaptive post-traumatic stress and how to distinguish them from warning signs of more serious problems. Not surprisingly, shaking and crying are on the "normal" list. In addition, "1000 yard stare" is listed as a typical symptom that is not, in the short term, of particular concern. From the description, it sounds like Mr. Idris is exhibiting a 1000 yard stare. What may seem less intuitive is the idea that someone could be stoic throughout such an ordeal, not cry while it's happening, and then cry while describing it. In fact, however, not only is this a common reaction, it's a good sign.

When I teach these classes, I encourage students to think of a traumatic incident as though they were a wild animal being attacked by a tiger. Their reaction, during and after the attack, is critical to the survival of the species. When the tiger first pounces, they exhibit some combination of three reactions -- fight, flight or freeze. Most of us have heard of "fight or flight" and it seems to make sense -- fight off the tiger if you can, run away if you can't. But freezing is also an adaptive response. In some cases, it may prevent the tiger from seeing us, if we can manage to blend into the background. And if we can't fight or run away, convincing the tiger we're already dead may save our life.

You will notice that crying is not one of the options in this scenario. That's not to say that no one ever cries at a moment of great danger, but this is not, in fact, an automatic response. Crying is triggered by a realization of what is happening, but fight, flight and freeze are triggered automatically, before our rational mind knows what is happening. Even a few moments later, when we realize the tiger is attacking, our full energies are dedicated to survival. We literally don't have the resources, in many instances, to cry.

Once the attack is over, our priority, from an evolutionary standpoint, is making sure we either avoid or survive the next tiger attack. This causes us to respond fearfully to sights, sounds and experiences that we associate with the attack, even if they are pretty irrelevant. If we smelled flowers right before the attack, after all, then that smell might signal that another attack is coming.

Imagine, however, that we didn't experience the attack as particularly bad, or that we blocked ourselves off from realizing how bad it really was. That might sound good, but it would be dangerous, because we would not be on the lookout for the next pouncing tiger. If humans ever exhibited this trait in large numbers, it's likely it was bred out of the gene pool a long time ago.

In order to avoid the next tiger attack, we need to know that tiger attacks are bad. That means that all the reactions of fear and distress which we avoided during the attack itself because we were trying to stay alive are critically important in helping us learn. So, when the attack is over, we cry when when we remember it. We shake. We can't concentrate, so we stare off into the distance.

So, Mr. Idris' tears are normal. But more than that, they are healthy. They mean that he is, in some way, in touch with how he feels about what happened to him. And while there are many more factors that go into determining how quickly and well people will heal after a traumatic event, we do know that isolating yourself from the painful feelings is a risk factor for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder down the line. So I applaud Mr. Idris for his bravery, his escape, and his tears, and I hope that Libya soon has many fewer reasons to cry.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle