SAPPORO – About 13,000 people sought shelter at a total of 768 evacuation centers set up in Hokkaido following the powerful earthquake that hit the island on Sept. 6, according to the Hokkaido Prefectural Government.
With the magnitude 6.7 quake triggering a prefecture-wide blackout and paralyzing traffic, the number of evacuees continued to increase until the following day. The number has gradually declined since power was restored to households, but 652 people continued to stay in evacuation centers as of Monday, and some appear to be suffering from so-called economy-class syndrome, in which blood clots develop due to inactivity resulting from cramped conditions.
In the tourist-heavy prefectural capital of Sapporo, many foreign nationals had been left in the streets with no information immediately after the quake. A total of six facilities — including gymnasiums — in the city center were later opened up to tourists, and information was provided in English and Chinese. Up to about 1,250 people used the facilities.
While taking steps to ensure privacy and comfort, people who stayed at an evacuation center located near the quake’s epicenter in the Oiwake district of the town of Abira slept in rooms without partitions, as evacuees felt more safe as they were able to see each other, with the atmosphere resembling a “training camp,” according to an official.
But not all procedures went smoothly. Some evacuees complained they had nowhere else to go when authorities notified them that the last remaining evacuation center in Sapporo’s Higashi Ward was shutting down on Sept. 13. The city then allowed some people to continue to stay until Sept. 21, even after the center’s official closure date of Sept. 14.
The city told evacuees the closure of the center was due to the restoration of utilities, but an official said, “Maybe the explanation we provided in advance was not enough.”
In the hardest-hit towns of Atsuma and neighboring Abira, Kazuhiko Hanzawa, a doctor and a specially appointed professor at Niigata University Graduate School of Medical and Dental Sciences, has volunteered to check on evacuees following the disaster.
“The temperature changes a lot around this time of the year, and blood clots tend to form when you sleep on the floor and get cold,” Hanzawa said, highlighting the importance of using makeshift beds as a way to avoid economy-class syndrome, or deep vein thrombosis. Such blood clots can travel to the lungs or other vital organs and if untreated can lead to death.
Mariko Miyake, a 65-year-old woman at an evacuation center in Abira, looked relieved Monday as Hanzawa reassured her after examining her leg with ultrasound that she seems to have no blood clots. He also asked whether she has slept in cars and on the floor of the evacuation center.
“I’m glad that there seems to have been no problem,” Miyake said. Her house was damaged by the quake and she has slept on a bed made of cardboard. She said she has been walking up and down the stairs for exercise.
Hanzawa, who has been studying economy-class syndrome in disaster-hit areas, said, “I want evacuees to drink fluids and move their bodies as much as possible.”