National | Regional Voices: Tohoku

Typhoon Hagibis shows challenges of evacuating Fukushima nursing homes in disasters

Kahoku Shimpo

Powerful Typhoon Hagibis, which ripped through Japan on Oct. 12 and brought flooding and landslides to Fukushima Prefecture, has left at least 27 senior group homes and nursing homes in the area damaged or flooded.

As of Oct. 15, there were no reports of deaths or injuries at such facilities, but the widespread damage caused by the typhoon has exposed the difficulties that homes for elderly people have faced in responding to the disaster.

At about 1 a.m. on Oct. 13, firefighters knocked on the front door of La Soeur Date, a special nursing care home in the city of Date, which was home to 99 residents at the time of the typhoon, to warn that the nearby river had burst its banks.

In response to the alert, eight staff members rushed to evacuate the residents to the second floor.

But about 15 minutes later, water began to gush into the premises, causing a short circuit and halting the elevators in the building.

It was not until 2 a.m. that staff, with help from firefighters, finished carrying bed-ridden residents and those in wheelchairs in knee-deep water up the stairs.

The water didn’t rise any further, but Shinya Anzai, director of the nursing care home, regrets being too slow in making the decision to carry the residents up.

“It scares me to think what would have happened if the water continued to rise,” he said.

An evacuation center for people with special needs is located about 2 kilometers away from the facility. But in the event of a disaster, Anzai isn’t considering evacuating the care home residents there, saying transporting nearly 100 people is “unrealistic,” citing possible health risks during the evacuation. “Needless to say, the residents’ lives are our priority but it’s hard to deal with (the issue),” Anzai said.

Meanwhile, in Motomiya, Fukushima Prefecture, the four-story nursing home Myojoen and its adjacent five-story hospital were flooded to near the ceiling of the ground floor, isolating around 180 people including staff.

When the floodwaters started entering the hospital at around 2 a.m. on Oct. 13, staff members managed to move some documents to a higher floor, but as the waters continued to rise they had to leave.

As all patient rooms are located on the second floor and above, those hospitalized during the typhoon were not directly affected by the flooding. Acutely ill patients were taken out of the building through windows and evacuated on boats.

“We had expected the building could be flooded based on a similar experience following torrential rains on Aug. 5, 1986, when the downpour flooded the hospital,” said hospital administrator Masatoshi Watanabe. “But the flooding (triggered by Typhoon Hagibis) was beyond our expectations.”

But in the wake of the typhoon, nursing care operators also had to deal with peculiar problems existing only in Fukushima Prefecture.

At around 1 a.m. on Oct. 13, the typhoon triggered landslides in the mountains behind the group home Kaede in the town of Miharu, causing debris to flow into the building through windows on the facility’s ground floor.

Only two staff members were in the building when mud entered the care home and evacuation wasn’t possible without help from caregivers dispatched from an affiliated care facility in the neighboring city of Tamura. With their assistance, evacuation started at around 4 a.m., three hours after the landslide hit the building.

Sachiko Mogi, the facility’s administrator, recalled having been warned of possible damage from a landslide. “However, I was still convinced that nothing would happen (to the care home),” she said.

A facility in the village of Katsurao is the central point of contact for caregivers in the area in case of emergency. But when the landslide occurred, they noticed for the first time how insufficient cooperation is with Miharu and neighboring areas in times of crisis.

“A local fire department has never participated in emergency drills at the facility, and many people in this area don’t even know about the facility’s existence,” Mogi said. “We would feel uneasy unless they lend a helping hand and make their presence visible to us.”

Drawing lessons from the severe floods that claimed the lives of nine nursing home residents in Iwaizumi, Iwate Prefecture, after Typhoon Lionrock struck the region on Aug. 30, 2016, the central government ordered all welfare facilities in areas prone to flooding and landslides to beef up emergency management and set up an emergency evacuation plan.

But as of March, only 28.3 percent of facilities in Fukushima Prefecture had developed evacuation plans, according to the prefectural government.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published on Oct. 16.

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