Upgrading anti-disaster measures

Taking lessons from the major earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastal areas of the Tohoku region five years ago, the national and local governments are pushing measures to reduce damage, both human and physical, from future disasters such as the dreaded mega-quake in the Nankai Trough and one directly hitting Tokyo. The steps include designation and construction of buildings where residents can find safety from a major tsunami as well as improvement of evacuation paths. The relevant parties need to check regularly whether these and other anti-disaster measures are adequate and update them where necessary.

The most vulnerable in the case of a major natural disaster are the elderly and disabled people. Kyodo News found that disabled people were 2.3 times more likely than others to fall victim in the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. In the 36 municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures where residents died or went missing due to the quake and tsunami, 91,764 people carried physical disability certificates prior to the disasters. Of them, 1,495, or 1.6 percent, were among the immediate victims. Of 2,389,028 other residents, 16,941, or 0.7 percent, were killed or went missing.

A revision to the Basic Law on Disaster Control Measures has made it obligatory for municipalities to draw up a list of elderly and disabled residents who need assistance during evacuation in the event of a major disaster. Now the municipal governments have information on where these vulnerable residents live. But whether the residents can get such assistance when a disaster hits is a different story.

The exodus of younger residents to other places and the aging of the population in many rural areas have reduced the number of people who can offer assistance to the needy during an evacuation. According to a survey by Kyodo News of local governments across the country, there are at least 5.86 million people who would need assistance to evacuate. Only about 10 percent of the municipalities have crafted specific plans for the evacuation of these needy residents that identify who should assist them and the best places to which they can evacuate.

Local governments will have no other choice but to rely on the cooperation of community associations and anti-disaster groups made up of local residents. But it will be important for the municipalities to work out measures to help residents develop close relationships with each other ahead of time so they can cooperate in the event of a major disaster.

Long-term solutions should involve designing and building towns in ways that make large-scale evacuations of residents unnecessary. Municipalities should make it a rule that when such public facilities as schools, kindergartens, hospitals and elderly homes come up for rebuilding, they are moved to higher ground to escape damage from tsunami.

In the Tohoku municipalities devastated by the March 2011 tsunami, projects are underway to move communities that existed in seaside areas to upland areas. Local governments in other parts of the country may need to consider relocating communities in advance to places less vulnerable to major disasters.

Right after the 2011 disasters, there were not enough prefabricated housing units to accommodate all those who lost their residences in the tsunami, and many local governments used vacant apartments and homes to house some of the evacuees by offering to subsidize their rent. When to terminate the subsidies will come up for question. A realistic approach should be to end them when the temporary houses in their former communities are all vacated and dismantled.

In future major disasters, it will be impractical to accommodate all homeless survivors in temporary housing units. Local governments may need to consider using vacant houses as temporary abodes. It is estimated that there are some 8.2 million uninhabited houses across the country. For such a scheme to work, rules should be set down concerning the use of vacant houses as temporary residents for disaster victims, including the policy on rent subsidies. Local authorities should also take care so that people living in such houses won’t be isolated from the surrounding neighborhood.

The Tohoku disaster has led to proposals that people store food and water in their homes enough to last at least three days in advance and install circuit breakers that turn off electricity when they feel seismic vibrations to prevent fires. Progress in such efforts should be constantly monitored.

The national and local governments should carefully study the effectiveness of regularly held anti-disaster drills and improve them. It should be determined, for example, how vehicles abandoned on roads and traffic jams in the event of major disasters would hamper rescue and firefighting operations, and how this can be prevented. The bottom line is that anti-disaster plans should be checked regularly to make sure they will really work when disasters strike.