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A year after the Kumamoto earthquakes

A year after Kumamoto Prefecture was rocked by a series of big earthquakes, including the deadly temblors last April 14 and 16 that killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of houses, reconstruction is gradually making progress, particularly in damaged public infrastructure. But the presence of more than 40,000 residents still in temporary housing after losing their homes to the quakes testifies to the need for long-term public support to help them rebuild their lives.

The death toll from the quakes reached 225 in Kumamoto and neighboring Oita Prefecture. Among the victims, the number of people who died over the past year of indirect causes — such as illnesses exacerbated by tough conditions of life in evacuation — is more than three times that of those who were killed by direct causes of the quakes. That underscores the risk of health damage to disaster-affected people from extended life in temporary conditions, as had happened to many others in earlier major disasters like the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Efforts need to be hastened to help them secure permanent housing.

The powerful quakes that each registered the maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale damaged more than 190,000 houses and buildings, mainly in Kumamoto, including roughly 8,000 that were destroyed. Public facilities were turned into emergency shelters to accommodate tens of thousands of residents who lost their homes or feared for their safety amid continued big aftershocks.

All of these shelters have since been closed, but nearly 48,000 people continue to live either in prefabricated temporary housing units or apartments rented out by local governments to provide temporary housing for the evacuees — many uncertain how to rebuild their lives. The prefectural government reportedly hopes to end the situation by 2020 and local municipalities plan to accelerate the construction of 1,000 new public houses for the people displaced from their homes. Other means of public support should be explored for people who wish to rebuild their own houses.

Radical changes in their living environment is taking a heavy toll on the evacuees, especially more vulnerable people such as the elderly. The reported “solitary deaths” of about a dozen people who lived alone in publicly rented apartments for the evacuees in Kumamoto — away from their hometown communities and apparently with little daily contact with neighbors — point to the need for follow-up care of these people by both local governments and community organizations.

Over the past year, as many as 170 people were confirmed to have died of indirect causes from the quakes. Some fell victim to health problems triggered by evacuation, including “economy class syndrome,” which hit people who slept in their vehicles to avoid the crowded public evacuation shelters — whose number reached thousands in the worst-hit town of Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture. Others reportedly died after their illnesses turned worse when they had to move to different medical facilities because the medical equipment at their hospitals was damaged or rendered useless by power outages and cuts to the water supply. Yet others are said to have committed suicide after suffering depression following the quakes. More than 90 percent of these victims were reportedly in their 60s or older.

The Kumamoto earthquakes reminded us that similar big temblors taking place on active faults could happen anywhere in the country — which is believed to have some 2,000 active faults. Local authorities across the nation should learn from the Kumamoto quakes and introduce steps that can be taken in advance to prevent such secondary damage.

In the quakes a year ago, the Abe administration sent relief supplies such as emergency food to Kumamoto without waiting for requests for help from local authorities. However, the delivery of the supplies was hampered by transport disruptions and some of the supplies did not reach those who needed them. Taking cues from what caused problems with the disaster relief operation in Kumamoto, the government should promptly establish a system that involves prefectures, municipalities and trucking businesses to ensure the smooth delivery of supplies in emergencies.

Under the basic law on disaster countermeasures, it is the municipal authorities of cities, towns and villages that are supposed to be primarily responsible for emergency measures in the event of disasters since they are the closest to the affected residents. However, the Kumamoto quakes underlined the difficulties that municipalities, with limited manpower and disaster-response know-how, face in dealing with large-scale disasters like major earthquakes. Given that an adequate response to major disasters requires shared knowledge based on past experience, the national government and prefectures should play greater roles in these efforts.

Anti-disaster measures to be taken by the national and prefectural governments should include long-term steps to contain damage from major disasters by restricting land use for residences in high-risk areas. In the Kumamoto quakes, most of the severely damaged houses in Mashiki were located on active faults in the zone where the quakes were focused. This lesson must not be forgotten.