The real concern is not the short term damage from earthquakes and/or tsunamis...it's the man-made ones that lurk in our future due to our reliance on nuclear power. Mankind's future hangs in the balance as we have yet to find a sustainable power source to escape/recover local events on earth (to say nothing of events that can impact the entire planet).
First, a brief look at what is the short term damage and what we can learn:
Japan has been hit by major earthquakes and has expertise in both planning and managing the after effects. Tsunami's while common in Japan, also have planning and communications to provide early warning to save lives. However, there are social engineering challenges with some of these plans. For example: Many elderly people are living far from evacuation areas (and/or higher ground) and simply cannot move fast enough to escape a tsunami. Social architects should re-think the placement of these folks in low lying areas. The structures we build in low lying areas are typical block-framed as they are cheaper to erect and presumably maximize the space on the available ground. What if we built structures that were round in shape and if torn from their moorings could float ? Further, a round shape has more lateral strength so as to resist stresses from compression. May be worthy of further study as the potential for future near-shore disaster increases with rising ocean levels and an increase in seismic activity. Lot's more discussion about different materials, structures, and social engineering that may be worth further exploration.
Now, let's step into the more complex area of energy sourcing:
Suppose we had a significant seismic event in the Midwest (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/events/1811-1812.php). Not an unexpected possibility, but certainly one that urban and societal architects have failed to adequately plan around. Have a peak at the number of nuclear plants situated in the midwest region (http://www.hanfordwatch.org/nuclear_power.htm). Assuming a major earthquake were to hit the midwest, and none of the plants were damaged outright from the event, what are the challenges with disruption of power and water supplies that enable these plants to operate within safe controls ? There may be adequate safeguards in place even for these concerns. But, what if someone did not plan for unintended consequences ? What would happen if one or more of these plants were damaged and radiation impacted the region ? How do you transition whole areas of populations to different areas of the country for an undetermined amount of time ? (We tried this at 3-mile island and thankfully it was reasonably well contained. IF a major event happens at one of these facilities, I can imagine a much larger impact on our population). We will likely see a retraction from coastal regions as waters rise and natural disasters reclaim the land (ref. Catrina and the impact on displacing a large number of people from New Orleans). What are the plans for evacuating parts of Illinois (to say nothing about Chicago) ? What would be the economic impacts if the Mississippi traffic flow was disrupted for a few weeks/months ? What would be the impact of disruption of power to the midwest ? How should the energy grid be re-balanced and/or re-routed to feed any gaps from the midwest nuclear generators ? These are not trivial questions, but many of these issues are inter-related. They would seem to require a blend of architecture disciplines to model the inter-dependencies and define scenarios for how to respond to one or more combinations of events. What would be the initial set of questions and constraints that would need to be considered ? What are the things we take for granted that can be / must be challenged to ensure we are prepared for a significant event ? How can we leverage this investment for preparedness as a way to boost our economy ? We may be able to identify one or more scenarios through a collaborative between architecture & engineering practices. Perhaps we can tap into an education cooperative where grant monies can be consolidated to fund the research and planning. More to come...