Caught off guard by deadly quakes, Kumamoto still learning lessons one year on

by

Staff Writer

It was just after midnight and I was dozing off at a capsule hotel in the city of Kumamoto on April 16 last year when the “Big One” hit.

Suddenly, I was bouncing around like a ball inside my small capsule for what seemed like an eternity. I grabbed my cellphone and rushed outside. Fire alarms were blaring everywhere and police cars were instructing people to evacuate.

I had just arrived in the city to cover the damage from a magnitude-6.5 quake that rocked the region two days earlier.

But I hadn’t seen this coming — a magnitude-7.3 quake. The “Big One.”

The earthquakes, which struck a year ago on April 14 and 16, killed 211 and injured thousands more. Both quakes registered the highest on Japan’s intensity scale of 7 and hit a prefecture where people had scarcely experienced temblors.

After dawn, I walked around the city and saw collapsed homes and shelters filled with people seeking water, food or simply a safe place.

But nearly a year later at the end of March, the rubble is gone and shopping centers look busy. One of the few reminders of the quakes is the cracks on some buildings and posters on walls that read “Ganbarubai Kumamoto” (“Let’s go Kumamoto”) in the local dialect.

Walking around further, however, it becomes clear that the recovery has just begun — both mentally and for infrastructure in the region.

“The damage was more serious during the second quake. I wasn’t able to stand up. It was scary that things in my house were flying toward me,” said a 70-year-old man who lived on the second floor of an apartment in the city of Kumamoto when the quakes hit.

But what he is truly suffering from are the occasional flashbacks he gets when the region is hit by frequent aftershocks.

A whopping 4,291 quakes, or aftershocks, have hit the prefecture since April 14 last year, according to the Meteorological Agency.

“I get (flashbacks) when there is an aftershock. I’m fine when the intensity is 1 or 2, but when it’s 3 or 4, it doesn’t feel good,” he told The Japan Times.

Last year’s quakes damaged an estimated 160,000 houses, offices and stores. And ensuring stable housing for its residents, whose houses either collapsed completely or are too unstable to live in, is at the top of the to-do list.

In Kumamoto Prefecture, 10,986 people currently live in 4,179 temporary dwellings, while another 31,247 live in commercial apartments and other housing that has been rented by municipalities and offered to quake victims for free for temporary use.

“We will support people living in temporary housing to move to their own home. Businesses and shops damaged by the earthquake have been recovering, so we will continue to provide aid for them to be able to operate like before,” said Taishi Wada, a Kumamoto Prefecture official .

Wada also said that other infrastructure, including roads, still need to be rebuilt in certain ares, while many buildings and homes need to add quake-resistant measures to clear quake standards.

The road to reconstruction looks steeper in the town of Mashiki, which suffered the greatest damage in last year’s quakes. As well as leaving 37 dead, 3,501 buildings were completely destroyed. Only seven buildings withstood the quake.

With most rubble on the streets removed, the town last month looked empty with few passers-by.

“It’ll take three years for the town to rebuild and 10 years to revitalize,” said Tomoaki Nakagiri, who heads Mashiki’s reconstruction department.

But a year after the quakes, the people of Mashiki, who have moved out of evacuation shelters and into temporary housing, are finally able to think about their future.

Since the first temporary housing was constructed in June, about 3,900 people have moved in to 1,562 temporary units prepared by the town. Another 3,700 people live in town-rented private housing for temporary use.

“Back then, no one knew what to do, and living in an evacuation shelter was full of uneasiness. They were finally able to move to temporary housing,” said Nakagiri.

“They are finally able to think about what to do next — to live in (longer-term) public housing for disaster victims, or to once again build a house here,” said Nakagiri.

“We want them to think wisely.”

A law that stipulates that temporary housing can only be used for up to two years, however, is putting a time limit on that decision.

“But the reality is, many in the Tohoku region are still living in temporary housing” even six years after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, said Nakagiri.

It would require more than two years to complete public housing for disaster victims, including construction, he said. So far, the town plans to build 300 public housing units.

According to a survey conducted by the town, 90 percent of its citizens said they wanted to remain or return to Mashiki after essential services are re-established and homes rebuilt.

Ensuring the safety of the buildings in the town is another must for people, and Mashiki is planning to build a new quake-resistant town hall that could also be used as an evacuation shelter.

The town also hopes to build another shelter that could withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, with a park nearby where people can evacuate in case of emergencies.

A sense of community is also key in motivating people to stay or return to the town, whose population was 34,499 before the quakes.

Currently, residents are meeting at makeshift halls within the temporary housing units to discuss how they would like to rebuild Mashiki.

Restoring the economy of Kumamoto Prefecture, home to tourist destinations including Kumamoto Castle, is also a vital element in its reconstruction plan.

The number of inbound tourists to Kumamoto Prefecture between October and December last year fell 11.6 percent from the same period in 2015.

But with the Women’s Handball World Championship and Rugby World Cup games taking place in Kumamoto in 2019, Kumamoto’s Wada said the prefecture plans to take advantage of the opportunity to show off its recovery.

To lure tourists, the prefecture plans to expand its airport and ports to accommodate more overseas tourists, and promote Aso Kuju National Park as a new highlight for travelers.

Last year, the Environment Ministry announced it will brand 32 parks nationwide as “world-class national parks,” aiming to increase visitors from 4.3 million to 10 million by 2020.

Eight have been chosen so far, including Aso Kuju National Park, which was picked especially to help the prefecture.

The ministry, with support from the tourist agency, local governments and other public organizations, will form a council to decide on promotional plans and help hotels and tourism companies communicate in multiple languages.

For Kumamoto, which previously had little knowledge on what to do when a strong earthquake hits, the central and local government officials dispatched to help the prefecture run shelters, sort out paperwork and tackle the aftermath overall was a big help, said Wada.

With the nation experiencing multiple disasters, including the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, many officials are now better prepared.

Although 180,000 people had initially evacuated, all shelters were able to close by November.

Electricity and gas were restored completely in the first month, and almost all water supply was restored by the end of July.

“We must be aware and make a list of which employee experienced what,” said Wada.

“When a disaster hits the next time, it is going to be time for Kumamoto to provide support.”