"Just imagine everything black", New York firefighter Mike Schramm tried to put it to me, one morning three years ago.

"It was basically hell on earth... you could smell it from a quarter mile away."

We were standing amid the ruins in Breezy Point - a plucky little seaside community on New York's Rockaway Peninsula, affectionately dubbed the Irish Riviera.

The proud settlement had lost 30 firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

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But that hadn't prepared it for the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which caught Breezy Point square in its eye when it bore down on the US eastern seaboard on October 29, 2012.

One hundred and twenty-five homes burned when seawater met power lines; 230 more were flattened in the path of the storm.

Schramm could only liken Sandy's havoc to that of Dresden, the German city bombed to cinders during World War II.

"It's a once in a lifetime thing," local newspaper editor Kevin Boyle added.

"You can't draw anything from experience."

The hard lessons were surely learned; New York City immediately launched a 250-step, $28 billion rebuild plan that would make it more resilient to the coming impacts of climate change.

In Japan, I witnessed the aftermath of the gigantic tsunami that a 9.0 megathrust earthquake sent surging toward the picturesque Tohoku coastline.

On 2.46pm on March 11, 2011, or 6.45pm New Zealand time, state broadcaster NHK was airing the dull debates of a Parliament night sitting when all hell broke loose.

To the sound of chimes, an urgent alert flashed upon the screen: "This is a tsunami warning."

Just under nine seconds before, Japan's earthquake early warning system had detected the first P wave of the earthquake.

This almost instantly triggered a live warning, relayed direct to televisions across the country.

Within five minutes, seismometer data calculated tsunami height and arrival time for each point of the coast.

A man walks along a wharf near a ship resting on a crane, two weeks after the tsunami hit a 9.1 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 28, 2011. Photo / NZPA/Bradley Ambrose
A man walks along a wharf near a ship resting on a crane, two weeks after the tsunami hit a 9.1 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 28, 2011. Photo / NZPA/Bradley Ambrose

Tohoku's capital of Sendai got its first warning just three minutes after the alert.

When the monster arrived, its highest waves reached more than 30m in some places, and its immense force sent it rushing kilometres inland, tearing through ports and cities.

Fishing settlement Minami Sanriku was already equipped with a 5m seawall and a disaster readiness centre, but that wasn't enough to save much of the town's population.

Mayor Jin Sato painfully related to me the story of 24-year-old Miki Endo, who, through a loudspeaker mounted on the centre, urged residents to move to higher ground.

Sato was underwater for three minutes, clinging desperately to the building's radio antenna as his town vanished around him.

A general view of Minami Sanriku, Tohoku, Japan where hundreds of people were killed in a tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. Photo / Jamie Morton
A general view of Minami Sanriku, Tohoku, Japan where hundreds of people were killed in a tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. Photo / Jamie Morton

By the next morning, only a third of the 30 who had been on the roof with him were still alive; the courageous Endo was among the 42 people who perished in the three storeys below.

The Tohoku quake and tsunami cost some 15,883 lives and $286 billion, in a country already famously conscious of its natural threats.

Japan, too, emerged from the chaos more prepared and more resilient; hundreds of coastal defences were installed all along the coasts, including forests designed to act as buffers.

A train rests in a sink hole near a factory in Ishinomako, Japan, two weeks a tsunami hit as a result of a 9.1 earthquake on March 11, 2011. Photo / NZPA / Bradley Ambrose
A train rests in a sink hole near a factory in Ishinomako, Japan, two weeks a tsunami hit as a result of a 9.1 earthquake on March 11, 2011. Photo / NZPA / Bradley Ambrose

In Yingxiu, in the heart of Western China's mountainous Sichuan Province, mayor Liu Zhihong showed me the mangled remains of a school where 43 children, eight teachers, two staff members and two family members died when the buildings collapsed in an 8.0 quake that struck beneath the town on May 12, 2008.

Six thousand, five hundred and sixty-six people were killed in this remote factory town in Wenchuan County.

And nearly 70,000 died across the wider area.

A further 18,000 people went missing and 370,000 were injured.

In New Zealand terms, the scale was inconceivable: a total of 46 million people had been affected; authorities had to provide shelter for 8.5 million families, and 12 million people lost their homes.

Yingxiu mayor Liu Zhihong at the ruins of Xuankou Middle School, in Sichuan Province, China, where 55 people were killed in a magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck on May 12, 2008. Photo / Jamie Morton
Yingxiu mayor Liu Zhihong at the ruins of Xuankou Middle School, in Sichuan Province, China, where 55 people were killed in a magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck on May 12, 2008. Photo / Jamie Morton

It was a massive reality check for the Chinese government.

Buildings had been reconstructed to strict standards that were now the highest in the country, after experts and engineers developed tough new codes requiring quality control of material and building techniques.

Despite the many major natural events that have befallen New Zealand over the last decade - eruptions, tsunami scares and an earthquake that cost the lives of 185 people in Christchurch - none could equal the human toll and destruction Japan and China endured.

Yet any of these scenarios could have played out here, and perhaps with worse consequences.

Our uneasy position upon two tectonic plates makes New Zealand one of the world's most vulnerable economies to the impact of natural disasters as a percentage of GDP - behind only Bangladesh and Chile.

The potential loss of life - be it from a huge Wellington-centred quake, a major Alpine Fault rupture, an eruption from a previously unknown volcanic vent below Auckland, or a near-shore tsunami hitting low-lying Gisborne or Papamoa - is sobering and difficult to comprehend.

It's far from true to say New Zealand hasn't learned from large-scale overseas disasters, or indeed from its own.

We've seen that in the tens of thousands of buildings earthquake-strengthened since 2010; in the widespread improvements that emergency services and other response effort groups have adopted; and in a new era of disaster-centred science and research.

The Government has dedicated one of its 11 National Science Challenges to natural disaster resilience, in what will be a $20 million, decade-long effort combining the brainpower of 90 of the country's top researchers.

Damage in Gloucester St caused by the February 22, 2011, Christchurch Earthquake. Photo / File
Damage in Gloucester St caused by the February 22, 2011, Christchurch Earthquake. Photo / File

We're progressively learning much more about the countless hidden and visible features that threaten us, in projects ranging from a new underwater "earthquake observatory" near the North Island's East Coast, to a new Alpine Fault monitoring programme using ultra-sensitive, fibre-optic sensors placed deep below ground.

Yet, Monday's 7.8 earthquake still exposed urgent areas for improvement.

People living in zones that might have been at risk of a tsunami have rightly complained about a lack of warning over the possible tsunami threat, including no sirens being sounded in some areas, or being sounded late.

"Right up front, there was unacceptable level of confusion ... there's no hiding from this by Civil Defence, they recognise that it wasn't, as they say, crisp, and they've got work to do," Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee told Fairfax.

It was "inevitable" there would be changes to the organisation's structure after the problems.

But there are lessons the rest of us need to learn as well.

A survey conducted for Civil Defence earlier this year indicated that while nine out of 10 Kiwis believe they have a good understanding of the types of disasters that could occur here, just 14 per cent of us are fully prepared.

This means the other 86 per cent of us haven't made survival plans that include what to do when not at home, don't have necessary emergency items which we regularly update, and haven't stored sufficient water.

Earthquake damage on State Highway One and the main trunk railway line north of Kaikoura. Photo / File
Earthquake damage on State Highway One and the main trunk railway line north of Kaikoura. Photo / File

A quarter of us lack knowledge about how to even prepare - and those Kiwis who don't think about what disasters could occur in their area are much less likely to prepare.

And, unsurprisingly, our famous "she'll be right" attitude comes through strong.

The survey found "optimism" was a big barrier to being prepared, finding one in five of us seem to think it's unlikely we'll ever be involved in a disaster.

We have only to look at this week's developments - and the constant warnings from scientists about potentially much larger catastrophes awaiting us within this lifetime - to know that sense of comfort is dangerously misplaced.

Preparedness isn't a concept, but a culture we must embrace, right now.

We can no longer afford to be complacent.

"It means a lot, not just for the town, but for the whole country, for everyone," Liu Zhihong remarked to me, looking over the rubble of Xuankou Middle School.

"It means we should all work together and fight together against the threat of natural disasters."

*People can learn more about natural hazards and how to prepare for disasters here.