Kansai counts the cost of Typhoon Jebi

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Osaka and the Kansai region spent Wednesday cleaning up after Typhoon Jebi roared through the area Tuesday, causing widespread damage.

Most businesses in central Osaka reopened and trains and subways were running normally. But with Kansai International Airport still out of operation, thousands of passengers had to rebook flights from other international airports.

A tanker crashed into the bridge connecting the airport to the mainland Tuesday, and high tides flooded the main runway and surrounding tarmac. There was no official word Wednesday on when flights would be able to resume, and concern is growing in the Kansai region over the economic losses that would be incurred by a prolonged closure of the airport.

About 5,000 people were stranded Tuesday night on the artificial island on which Kansai airport is built. They were evacuated Wednesday by bus and boat.

A Kyodo News tally as of Wednesday evening showed that 11 people had been killed due to the typhoon in western Japan and a combined 460 people had been injured nationwide. Kansai Electric Power Co. said about 349,000 homes and businesses in the Kansai region remained without power.

Rescue and recovery efforts were also underway elsewhere in the region. A group of about 160 elementary school pupils in Kyoto have been stranded since Tuesday in a facility in Kyoto where they were staying on a school trip. Trees knocked down by the strong typhoon blocked surrounding roads, local officials said Wednesday.

Of the pupils, two — a girl and a boy — have fallen ill and were taken to a hospital by helicopter on Wednesday morning, according to officials from the city of Kyoto’s board of education.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui said that he was satisfied with the advance preparations the prefecture had made and the way it had handled the disaster response. Osaka Prefecture’s disaster response teams had already had to deal with heavy rains and an earthquake over the last three months before Tuesday’s typhoon.

But attention is now focused on the damage to Kansai airport, a crucial air link to the region.

“Kansai airport is the main international airport for all of western Japan and we want to make all effort at reopening it as soon as possible,” Matsui said. “But at this point, we’re still assessing the damage …. How long will it take? Passenger safety is first but we want to limit economic damage due to its closure.”

Osaka Prefecture has requested financial assistance and expertise from the central government, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to provide it. In a series of tweets, Abe hailed the relief operations and said the government will “come together to make every effort to urgently deal with the disaster and restore infrastructure.”

The possibility of using Kobe and Itami airports more until operations are fully restored at Kansai airport is also something Osaka wants to discuss with the central government.

Although the governor did not say so directly, that could mean a temporary return of some international flights to Itami airport. Itami served as the Kansai region’s international airport until Kansai airport opened in 1994.”The function of Kansai airport is currently at zero,” Matsui said. “If it is gradually raised to 50 percent, then we need to make efforts at cooperating, during this time of emergency, with Kansai’s other two airports (Itami and Kobe) in order to limit the economic damage to the region as much as possible.”

“I want to discuss all possibilities,” he said, in reply to a question if he wanted both Kobe and Itami to take international flights.

Kansai is extremely worried about losing business to other international hubs.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways on Wednesday canceled flights departing from and arriving at Kansai airport. A JAL spokesman said the carrier is mulling arranging emergency international flights to and from Narita International Airport “as soon as possible,” but declined to specify a timeline.

Kansai International Airport sits on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, and is the main international airport for the Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe areas. Itami, also known as Osaka International Airport, is located about 30 minutes north of Osaka station. Kobe also has a domestic-only airport.

In fiscal 2017, Kansai airport hosted a total of 28.8 million tourists — a record high. The airport is linked by air routes with about 100 cities in the world. In that same fiscal year the volume of cargo handled at the airport stood at about 852,000 tons, while the number of flight landings and takeoffs totaled some 188,000.

Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report. Information from Kyodo added.