Reducing disaster-related deaths

The government on March 28 outlined a policy of reducing by 80 percent in 10 years the death toll of 332,000 currently anticipated from the massive quake that is predicted to happen in the Nankai trough, a 900-km subduction zone off the Pacific coasts stretching from Shizuoka Prefecture to Shikoku. It also plans to reduce by 50 percent the number of buildings expected to be destroyed from the quake — now estimated at 2.5 million.

As for the major quake predicted to occur under Tokyo, the government called on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and prefectural governments concerned to work out a five-year plan to cope with the anticipated damage.

Since there are limits to what the central and local governments can do once major disasters strike, it is important for local communities to develop networks in advance that will enable citizens to help one another. Municipalities should realize that they can play an important role in helping local residents organize such networks.

Municipalities know best the conditions of local residents and their ability to reduce the possibility of disaster damage. By carefully listening to local residents’ opinions on this matter, municipalities can work out concrete plans and improve local residents’ sense of participation. Municipalities should also choose the most suitable methods from among disaster-prevention measures listed by the central government and implement effective disaster-prevention plans

The policy outline commendably calls on households to store a week’s worth of food and water. But regrettably it fails to address the question of whether the use of vehicles should be restricted during disasters and whether vehicles abandoned on roads should be removed so they don’t block emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines .

Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, it was proposed that the use of helicopters and heavy equipment be suspended for some time to create a “silent time” so that calls for help from people trapped under debris could be heard. Triage to determine which people should be given priority in accommodating victims into evacuation shelters was also proposed. The policy outline fails to address these issues. So the central government should quickly devise appropriate rules.

The central government has designated 707 municipalities in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and 26 other prefectures as areas where anti-disaster measures should be vigorously pushed. Since these municipalities cover about 40 percent of Japan’s municipalities, both the central and local governments together must make strenuous efforts to take effective measures to reduce possible human casualties and damage to structures from major quakes and tsunamis.

Among the measures they should take include making electricity, city water and gas services quake-proof, issuing sufficient subsidies to make buildings quake-proof, building new structures and designating existing structures to serve as evacuation sites in the event of tsunamis, helping spread the use of circuit breakers and electric heaters and stoves that automatically shut down in the event of earthquakes, improving systems to issue warnings and other information, including email, and moving important functions of government offices to safe locations in advance.