National

New Chitose Airport bounces back but power outages a wider concern in quake-hit Hokkaido

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

With power to most facilities restored and its sprinkler-flooded floors now clean and dry, New Chitose Airport, Hokkaido’s main gateway, is slowly getting back to normal after Thursday’s level 7 earthquake.

Search and rescue missions have officially ended in the rural prefecture, leaving the death toll from the magnitude 6.7 temblor at 41, central and local government officials said.

The shutdown of the Tomato-Atsuma power plant, Hokkaido’s largest thermal power station, is meanwhile continuing to create serious electricity shortages throughout the prefecture. The situation is forcing companies and households to conserve power to prevent blackouts from returning.

New Chitose Airport, southeast of Sapporo, hosted many stranded passengers but managed to avoid chaos thanks to cool heads and public cooperation. Domestic and international flights had resumed by Saturday.

“On the day of the earthquake, the international terminal floor of the airport was flooded with water which came over my shoes, but it was all mopped up within five hours by staff members of the airport and a cleaning company,” said Makoto Kimura, vice manager of a Lawson Inc. convenience store in the building.

“Despite the food shortage and the lack of electricity, people who came to ask questions regarding those issues were very understanding and we really tried our best to provide sufficient information,” said Ayaka Kikuchi of the airport’s Hokkaido Tourist Information Center.

She said the chaos was minimized and emphasized that all of the foreign tourists inside behaved with complete decorum until power was restored on Saturday and flights resumed.

The Lawson store was the only one open in the international terminal on Saturday, and its management called for extra staffers from Sapporo and even as far away as Tokyo to provide help.

But many products, such as milk and ice cream, spoiled soon after the prefecture-wide blackout began, Kimura said.

“We first had to sort out the spoilage and then restock the shelves with new products,” he recalled.

With the airport’s garbage disposal plant also out of commission, the spoiled products were stacked in the convenience store’s eating area and blocked off with chairs.

“Food such as instant noodles, bento and rice balls sold out quickly. We wanted to serve as many people as possible, but almost everything had sold out by 2 p.m. (Saturday) and we had to close,” said Kimura.

The store was still out of noodles and snacks as of Sunday, but had plenty of bottled water and other products, he said, adding that many Lawsons in Sapporo, the capital, were in the process of being resupplied, meaning the airport branch will likely be fully restocked soon.

Some countries were quick to respond to their citizens’ needs.

A liaison officer from the South Korean police dispatched by the South Korean Foreign Ministry arrived at the airport on Friday to set up an emergency support booth for those stranded. Korean tourists made 639,400 visits to Hokkaido in fiscal 2017.

“When we set up our booth, the terminal resembled an evacuation center filled with people sleeping on the floor,” Yoon Young-kwon of the Korean National Police Agency told The Japan Times on Sunday. “Around 4,000 Koreans had seen their flights canceled and were stranded at the airport.”

Yoon said he was relieved by the rush of departures.

“Eighty percent of the stranded Korean passengers departed safely yesterday (Saturday),” he said.

To facilitate their return, 11 extra South Korea-bound flights from five different airlines were added to the schedule Saturday.

While no Korean visitors were reportedly injured by the quake, the family of an 11-month-old infant who had contracted pneumonia was given priority and flew back on the earliest flight, according to the liaison officer.

Most of the Korean tourists needed assistance with language issues regarding flight announcements, quake news and the availability of food, Yoon said. “Many of them struggled with the language barrier, and the amount of food was insufficient,” he noted.

Yoon said more Koreans have been attracted to Japan recently by TV shows showing Korean celebrities coming here to eat Japanese food.

“Hokkaido is one of the most popular destinations among visiting Korean tourists, probably after Osaka, with many visitors eager to eat at restaurants featured on those shows,” he said.

Yip Pak Lim of Hong Kong said he was happy with the airport’s quick recovery.

“I was worried if I could depart safely, but the airport seems to be operating almost as normally as other airports, so I can go home,” he said while charging his phone in the lobby Sunday just ahead of his flight.

He said he was eager to visit Sapporo again despite the quake. But next time, he added, “I’ll probably bring some more emergency batteries — just in case.”

The quake, which maxed out at 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale, destroyed houses, ripped roads and triggered multiple landslides. Of the 40 people killed, 36 were in the town of Atsuma, where giant landslides buried several homes.

Thursday’s 3:08 a.m. quake also cut power to all 2.95 million homes in Hokkaido after the Tomato-Atsuma power plant, the main power facility for the prefecture, was halted. Recovery could reportedly take more than a week, leaving Hokkaido in an unstable situation.

To save electricity, the use of air conditioners and elevators at facilities owned by the Hokkaido prefectural and Sapporo municipal governments has been restricted, with runs on Sapporo’s subway and tram network also curtailed. Hokkaido Railway Co. has canceled some of its limited-express trains, including those connecting Sapporo and Asahikawa.

Amid fears that power-generation capacity won’t be high enough at peak times, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. said it was considering resorting to rolling blackouts.

Information from Kyodo added.