Preparing for heavy snowfalls

Recent heavy snowfalls from the Kanto-Koshin region to Hokkaido revealed the vulnerability of areas that up to now have not experienced such heavy snowstorms. Overall snowfall across the nation has been on the decline, but severe snowstorms are occasionally striking areas that normally do not get much snow. Both the public and private sectors, even in relatively warm areas, need to take precautions against heavy snow.

There were record snowfalls in many places this month. The city of Kofu reported 114 cm of snow, more than twice the previous heaviest fall since records began being kept in 1896. As of Feb. 19, at least 22 deaths had been attributed to heavy snow in the Kanto-Koshin and Tohoku regions. Expressways were closed with trapped vehicles still on them, mountain communities were cut off, train services were stopped, power outages occured and schools were closed. As of the night of Feb. 18, more than 6,000 people were isolated in seven prefectures, including some 2,400 residents in the town of Marumori in Miyagi Prefecture.

Expressway closures greatly affected the delivery of food and other goods, leading to empty shelves in supermarkets and convenience stores. Some factories were forced to halt operations. The government and expressway operators must examine whether they acted quickly enough to close them before vehicles could become stranded, and how they can improve their efforts to clear expressways of snow so safe travel can quickly resume. As it would be very costly for local governments to buy snowplow trucks, it may be more feasible for them to provide construction firms with snow plows that could be attached to their dump trucks when needed.

For their part, motorists should always carry chains, shovels, food and water when traveling in areas where snowfall is possible, and avoid driving when snow storms are approaching.

Having communities cut off by heavy snow was a new experience for some local governments. They should make a list of communities likely to be isolated in heavy snow and what measures to take on such occasions. Preparations should include registering and training local residents and volunteers who can be mobilized, and the storage of food, water and other necessary items. Local governments should also plan how to reach isolated communities, even using helicopters or the assistance of the Self-Defense Forces.

In some places, roofs of public places, including a train station and a school gym, collapsed. The government may need to strengthen construction standards for buildings even in areas that don’t normally experience heavy snow.

A train rammed into the rear of a stopped train on the Toyoko Line at Motosumiyoshi Station in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, apparently because its brakes malfunctioned on the snowy track. The accident put the line out of service for almost a full day. Railway companies need to examine the performance of their trains in snowy conditions and revise their equipment and operation rules if necessary.

The Meteorological Agency was criticized for failing to issue a special heavy snowfall warning to alert local governments and residents before the last snowstorm. It must learn from this experience and consider how to improve the way it alerts local governments and residents when snowstorms are expected.