Preparing for major disasters

Facing the danger of massive quakes and related tsunamis that are expected to strike the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Pacific coastal areas of Honshu and Shikoku, the government plans to submit bills to prepare for these disasters to the current Diet session.

Damage from the expected disasters will be much larger than that from the 3/11 quake and tsunami. A government panel said in August 2012 that a massive tsunami from a quake in the Nankai Trough, a 900-km subduction zone off the Pacific coasts stretching from Shizuoka Prefecture to Shikoku, would kill up to 323,000 people and destroy up to 2.39 million buildings. The central and local governments should quickly scrutinize their preparations for future massive disasters and do what they can to improve them.

One of the bills would require the central government to set up reconstruction headquarters and work out a basic outline of reconstruction so that local governments concerned can quickly carry out recovery projects. Under the bill, the central government would also promptly begin temporary rehabilitation projects immediately after the occurrence of a disaster on behalf of local governments. The bill would incorporate various measures taken on the basis of laws following the 3/11 disasters.

A bill to revise the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Law would require municipal governments to make lists of people especially vulnerable to disasters (with their consent), such as the disabled and the elderly, and to give these lists to emergency rescue organizations such as fire brigades and volunteer disaster prevention groups in advance. According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, only about 64 percent of the country’s municipal governments possessed such lists as of April 2012.

Using the lists, which would include the names, addresses and telephone numbers of vulnerable people, rescue organizations would lead them to safety in the event of a disaster.

People aged 60 or over accounted for more than 60 percent of those who died in the 3/11 disasters. Some local governments refused to hand over such lists to volunteer rescue organizations, citing the need to protect personal information. This caused critical delays in rescue efforts. Clearly passage of the bill is a necessary step toward reducing casualties in future disasters.

The central government is considering whether the revision bill should include measures to prevent confusion immediate after a disaster hits. In the wake of the 3/11 disasters, more than 5 million people walked or rode bicycles home because public transport ceased to operate. The result was immense traffic congestion.

If a massive quake strikes the Tokyo metropolitan area, such congestion would hamper the movement of emergency vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances. It is important to consider whether it would be better to temporarily restrict the movement of people in the wake of a major disaster.

The bills would largely cope with situations that would develop after disasters strike. The central and local governments take steps to make communities more resilient to disasters, including the relocation of remote villages in vulnerable areas to safer locations if such a step is deemed necessary. Backup functions for the nation’s capital away from Tokyo should also be established. Given the fact that a major disaster could strike at any time, the government should immediately begin to implement such measures.