Few visually impaired residents evacuated in western Japan rain disaster, prompting calls for better planning

Kyodo

Only a small fraction of blind people or those with visual impairments evacuated when deadly torrential rains hit western Japan last month, underscoring the physical and psychological hurdles such people face in times of disaster, a Kyodo News survey found Tuesday.

Six people were confirmed to have taken shelter at evacuation sites in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima and Ehime, according to 10 organizations for blind or visually impaired people in the areas. The figure represents a small portion of some 1,410 people who were registered with the organizations.

Floods and mudslides caused by heavy rains left at least 226 people dead, mostly in those three prefectures.

Evacuation instructions and advisories were issued for the disaster in 23 of the country’s 47 prefectures, covering some 8.63 million people, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. Roughly 23,000 took shelter at evacuation centers at one point, the agency said.

While many of the organizations’ members said they stayed at home because they assumed dangers posed by the rains would be minor, others said they found it difficult to evacuate on their own when there were floods and mudslides occurring nearby.

“I was thinking if I were to die, I would die here,” said Sachie Shimizu, 58, who remained at her home in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture.

She lives with her 60-year-old sister, who is also visually impaired, and her 83-year-old bedridden mother, who has dementia.

She and her sister moved to the second floor, but they were unable to carry their mother there, Shimizu said. She went to see her mother in the middle of the night, using an umbrella to touch the floor in order to make sure the flood waters had not reached the first floor.

Even those who managed to get to evacuation centers faced problems in unfamiliar environments.

In Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, 48-year-old Katsue Yamasaki said she fled to a nearby elementary school with her family but got lost many times inside.

“It’s unclear how many people would actually help us (at a time of a disaster). I think many would hesitate to evacuate,” Yamasaki said.

There were cases of people who grew hesitant to evacuate or were discouraged by others due to their physical conditions.

Toshimasa Onari, who heads a welfare group for the visually impaired in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, said a member of his organization was preparing to flee when her neighbor told her she should stay because she is visually impaired. The woman waited for rescue on her bed, he said.

Toshiko Ishizumi, 67, said she was urged by a senior member of a residents’ association to leave her home in Ozu, Ehime Prefecture, but stayed behind thinking she would “become an encumbrance” if she went with them.

“It would have been different if I had taken part in an emergency drill,” she said.

Experts say emergency planning and help for local residents are crucial in realizing their smooth evacuations.

“Municipalities should work with local communities to create evacuation plans under the coordination of their disaster management and welfare sections,” said Shigeo Tatsuki, a Doshisha University professor specializing in welfare and disaster prevention.

Generally, elderly people and people with disabilities should start evacuating before municipalities issue evacuation advisories and instructions. People can also move to safer locations inside their homes if going outside is too dangerous, experts say.

The number of people at evacuation centers has dropped from the levels in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but more than 3,600 people were still at such facilities as of early August.