Following last week’s eruption of Mount Moto-Shirane in Gunma Prefecture, both central and local authorities have come under fire for failing to issue a warning to climbers and skiers in the area until about an hour after the blast.
When a volcano erupts, the Meteorological Agency is supposed to issue an alert so people in the area can seek cover. Some experts blamed the tardy response to this incident on overly cautious officials.
The first alert “could just be that the volcano in question appears to have erupted. If they don’t know, more information can be provided in a follow-up alert. They should have operated more flexibly,” said Kazuhiro Ishihara, head of the Meteorological Agency’s Volcano Eruption Prediction Liaison Council, which includes experts from both inside and outside the government.
The agency detected volcanic tremors, usually seen prior to an eruption, around three minutes before the Jan. 23 event. When the mountain erupted at 10:02 a.m., waveforms on the agency’s monitor jumped. But due to poor weather, agency officials couldn’t confirm via its cameras whether any smoke and ash was being spewed.
They finally issued an alert at 11:05 a.m. and raised the volcano alert from level 2 to 3.
The Meteorological Agency in Tokyo first received information from municipal officials in the town of Kusatsu about 10 minutes after the eruption.
Meanwhile, employees at the Kusatsu International Ski Resort reported a possible eruption several minutes after the blast to the town of Kusatsu, where a task force was immediately set up.
Local authorities had to scramble amid contradictory information about casualties from falling rocks and an avalanche. It turned out later that no avalanche had taken place.
It wasn’t until 10:50 a.m. that the local government issued warnings over the public loudspeaker system telling people to take cover.
“Confirming an avalanche took the most time, and taking around 50 minutes to issue the warning over the loudspeakers is an issue we need to reflect on,” one local government official said.
Many questions remain over how the information was collected and disseminated.
Kusatsu Mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa said that ensuring the safety of the people relies on information from scientists, government workers and local authorities, who all need to coordinate closely.
Apart from the safety concerns, the area known for its hot springs and ski resorts now has to also deal with the economic impact as large numbers of visitors cancel tours and hotel reservations.
Between the eruption and last Friday, a little more than 20,000 people had canceled room reservations in Kusatsu, according to a survey by an organization of local hotels and Japanese inns that was released Sunday.
In response, Kuroiwa said Monday the town will dole out ¥20 million in emergency funds to the local tourism association to help offset the losses.