National

Local leaders prepare anti-coronavirus measures at natural disaster evacuation shelters

Key challenge is evacuation shelter layouts that can accomodate social distancing

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

With the rainy and typhoon seasons approaching, local leaders are acting to prevent such natural events from facilitating the spread of the novel coronavirus at evacuation shelters.

June traditionally marks the start of the rainy season in most of the nation, while typhoons normally start to arrive in August. In recent years, floods, mudslides, high winds and typhoons have severely damaged multiple regions, including in Chiba, Kyoto, Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures, Hokkaido and parts of Kyushu. The disasters forced tens of thousands into crowded evacuation centers, but such a move now would pose the additional risk of COVID-19 infections.

Earlier this week, to address concerns that another wave of coronavirus outbreaks could occur after a natural disaster, the Cabinet Office issued a series of recommendations for reducing the risk of such infections.

These include considering whether it would be possible to evacuate to the home of a family member or neighbor that isn’t damaged, rather than to an official evacuation center set up in a school or public facility.

Evacuees have also been advised to bring their own face masks, disinfectant and body thermometers, which would likely be in short supply at an evacuation center.

Those forced by circumstances to spend the night sleeping in their cars would need to make sure they weren’t parked in a spot that could be hit with flash floods or mudslides, it added.

One of the key challenges local governments face is the layout and design of evacuation shelters that can accomodate social distancing.

Measures being discussed include ensuring a certain amount of space in evacuation shelters between groups and individuals who are camped out, and using partitions, made of cardboard or other materials, to separate people.

Saga Prefecture is currently working with 20 local city, town and village heads to set standards for evacuation shelters. During recent discussions with Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi, suggestions included keeping each group of evacuees at least two meters apart from each other, as well as setting up special areas for people who are feverish.

“A manual with the different recommendations will be agreed and sent out to everyone soon,” said Tatsuya Ichimaru, a Saga prefectural official familiar with the talks.

Other local governments have announced plans this week to use tents to isolate those in evacuation centers who are feverish. The city of Hiroshima will buy 850 camping tents, each 2.7 square meters and 1.7 meters high, and place them at about 140 designated evacuation centers around the city.

Kyoto Prefecture is working with seven local municipalities in the northern part of the prefecture to requisition hotels and traditional inns as evacuation centers, in addition to local public facilities, in order to avoid creating densely packed areas.

In addition to social distancing measures, Gifu Prefecture has announced that evacuees will be asked to record their medical condition on a card and tell officials how they feel when they check into a center.

“The card will ask if the person has a fever, trouble breathing, whether they have their sense of smell and taste or if they have a cough or diarrhea,” said Gifu Gov. Hajime Furuta, announcing the plans on May 11.

Other local governments are expected to enact similar measures over the coming weeks, hoping to do so before a natural disaster forces an evacuation.

In Okinawa the rainy season has already begun. Elsewhere it is predicted to begin later than usual this year, between early and late June.

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