Preparing for the next big one

A year after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Pacific coastal areas of the Tohoku region, the government and people need to realize that 3/11 will not be the last large-scale natural disaster to hit Japan. The nation needs to prepare for powerful quakes and tsunami that have been forecast as having a high probability of striking Tokyo, the Tokai region, the Kii Peninsula and Shikoku in the near future.

The central and local governments, enterprises and people must take measures in advance so that they will be able to quickly recover if those areas are hit by calamities.

The central and local governments and enterprises should integrate worst-case scenarios into their planning for continuing their activities after they are hit by large-scale disasters. Such planning should include every possible concrete measure that must be taken when worst-case scenarios take place.

With regard to the 3/11 disasters, it is often said that what happened — including the Fukushima nuclear crisis — was beyond what had been anticipated. Utmost efforts must be made so that this excuse will not be repeated when Japan is hit by future massive natural disasters. And in view of the fierceness of expected future massive quakes and tsunami, the central government and the power industry should seriously examine the wisdom of continuing nuclear power generation.

The most worrisome aspect of a strong quake expected to occur beneath Tokyo is that it may deprive Japan of the functions of the capital and the central government. It is imperative that the central government choose a place or places that will carry out the functions of the central government in case the Diet, ministries and agencies in Tokyo are devastated by a future quake.

Enterprises also need to prepare for a situation in which their headquarters are seriously damaged by a quake or tsunami. This preparation is necessary if they are to restart their normal operations as soon as possible following powerful natural disasters.

Political as well as business leaders should keep in mind that the longer the time Japan takes to recover from the devastation caused by the predicted large-scale natural disasters, the damage to Japan’s social and economic fabric will be much greater than in the case of the 3/11 disasters.

If a large-scale disaster hits, it is imperative that both the public and private sectors get accurate information quickly so that they can take appropriate actions. Careful preparations must be made to enable the Internet and telephones to keep functioning even if they are hit by a disaster. Utilization of satellites must be considered to assure uninterrupted communication.

Local governments are the basic administrative units that must take concrete steps to prepare for future disasters. In areas where tsunami is expected, they should improve routes that will be used by local residents to reach safe places once a tsunami warning is issued. They also need to elevate main roads to weaken the impact of incoming tsunami and build high, strong buildings in which local residents can take refuge when a tsunami has happened.

They also should prepare routes that will be used to transport relief supplies to their areas once they are hit by an earthquake or tsunami.

Local residents, including children, must be trained and educated to make proper judgments and to take appropriate actions once their areas are hit by a strong earthquake or tsunami. In particular, training for quickly reaching high places in case of tsunami should be repeatedly carried out.

Schoolteachers need special training because they are likely to play important roles at the time of a natural disaster. Local governments also need to consider in advance how to help evacuate elderly people in case a calamity strikes.

It is feared that areas with a high concentration of wooden houses will be greatly damaged once a strong earthquake or a fire caused by such an earthquake hits them. Rezoning of such areas should be speedily carried out.

The experience in the 3/11 disasters shows that local governments that had exchange programs of various types with other local governments in normal times received smooth support from the latter after the earthquake and tsunami.

To prepare for a future powerful disaster, local governments should establish networks with other local governments for mutual support in case such a disaster happens.

Mutual support will include dispatch of workers from local governments in areas outside devastated areas to local governments in the devastated areas. Local governments also need to develop cooperation with enterprises and nongovernmental organizations.

In the 3/11 disasters, expressways running through inland areas and roads connected to them played important roles in transporting relief goods to the devastated areas.

In the Kii Peninsula and Shikoku, which are expected to be hit by strong tsunami in the future, construction of roads in inland areas as well as other roads that connect the inland roads with coastal areas must be accelerated.

Storage of construction and other materials at various places for use in provisional reconstruction following future disasters should be pushed. Some communities may be isolated if hit by a strong disaster. The stockpiling of enough food, drinking water and fuel to last about a week should be carried out.

The central government must take utmost care so that in the event of a catastrophe, the red tape and turf wars between ministries and agencies will not hamper reconstruction efforts by local governments and efforts to bring normal and comfortable life to disaster victims.