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2011′s Natural Disasters: The Year from Hell

The extraordinary number and nature of the year's natural disasters affected populations at home and abroad

Every year has its memorable moments. From unforeseen political revolutions to the loss of notable history makers, people often remember where they were when something earth-shaking occurred. In 2011, the earth actually did shake, and in places that had never experienced anything like it in generations.

For as much as 2011 will be remembered as the year that the United States located and killed the world’s most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden, the revolutions in the Arab world, and economic and debt crises that engulfed much of the world’s economies, it will also be remembered as the “year from hell,” courtesy of Mother Nature.

Wars, terrorist acts, criminal actions, accidents, famine, and disease will always claim their share of innocent victims, but no one can surpass the destructive power of nature in all of its unexpected and violent forms. In terms of lives lost, property destroyed, and ways of life forever changed, Mother Nature wins.

Courtesy of multimedia technologies, many of these tragic and momentous events were instantly broadcast for the world to witness firsthand. Nowhere could the footage have been more dramatic than what was recorded in Japan.

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Japanese fire trucks line a road in this aerial photo of Sukuiso, Japan, after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord

On March 11, an unprecedented 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan. Long accustomed to earthquakes, the country’s buildings and infrastructure were built to withstand the often-violent shakes of the earth’s crust, but nothing could withstand the fury the earthquake unleashed. No sooner had the violent shaking stopped than a tsunami quickly arose from the Pacific Ocean and brought a wall of water, in some places in excess of 30 feet high, onto the east coast of the northern portion of the country.

With wailing sirens warning residents to head to higher ground, tremendous surges of water poured into ports, fishing villages, and inland towns. Tossing cars and trucks as if they were pocket-sized children’s toys, the tsunami went on to obliterate bridges, retaining walls, and buildings and infrastructure of every size. Ships that had been out fishing off the coastline or carrying freight to various ports were swept inland for miles, and in some places settled in mountain valleys when the water finally receded. With whole cities consumed by the surging ocean, the disaster claimed nearly 20,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The jaw-dropping video imagery captured by residents, security cameras, and news agencies looked like something out of a summer blockbuster movie, but the disaster footage was not only of shattered buildings and surging water destroying everything in its path; the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster caused the world even greater concern.

Sustaining serious damage as a result of the earthquake and the unprecedented tsunami surge, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant had three of its reactors experience partial meltdowns. With explosions and almost constant releases of hydrogen and radioactive gases coming from the fractured structure, the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, sent emergency crews and nuclear power experts into the plant to work in shifts in radiation suits to try to contain an already nightmarish situation. As specialty crews worked around the clock in time-limited shifts to contain the radiation leaks, search and rescue crews from around the world poured into Japan to render whatever assistance they could. Two of those crews came from the United States.

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Members of Virginia Task Force 1, from the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department, search structures and debris on March 16, 2011, in Kamaishi, Japan. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock

Virginia Task Force 1, from the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team arrived in Japan less than 36 hours after the earthquake. Joining search and rescue forces from Australia, Great Britain, and even New Zealand, which had just encountered its own earthquake in Christchurch just three weeks prior to the 9.0-magnitude Japan quake, the crews were deployed around the devastated northern region.

What they found left even the most seasoned and experienced rescuers in awe. The sheer and comprehensive devastation was indescribable for many. In some places, the destruction eclipsed the magnitude of what many of the international search and rescue teams had seen in Haiti just a year before. Unfortunately, their immediate tasks of looking for survivors would be in vain. Pockets of collapsed buildings that may have held quake survivors ended up flooding with water from the tsunami surge, thereby drowning anyone left alive after the earthquake.

While their rescue efforts did not yield the end results of finding the survivors that the world was praying for, the international assembly of search and rescue teams did provide critical support to the Japanese government and its people as they began to come to terms with their long-term recovery. By preparing shelters for the displaced, re-equipping Japanese emergency personnel with the necessary tools to do their jobs, clearing debris, and opening up supply routes or tending to those harmed by the three-pronged disaster, every team on the ground made a difference.

The devastation left behind will take decades to rebuild, and a full and accurate accounting of the lives lost will never truly be known. Furthermore, the partial meltdowns of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused a renewed worldwide debate on the safety and reliability of the nuclear power industry. Amid all of these factors was Japan’s economy, which already had enough challenges with a lingering worldwide economic downturn. Its recovery, like those of the northern Japanese coastlines, will be a work in progress for generations.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...