National | Regional Voices: Kyushu

Evacuation plans for elderly and disabled people get rethink in pandemic

Nishinippon Shimbun

As municipalities continue to battle against the novel coronavirus, many are thinking ahead, preparing for scenarios on how they would evacuate vulnerable people, including older people and people with disabilities who need help leaving their homes, if and when disasters like earthquakes and floods strike.

Authorities are asking people to check what they need to do in case of an emergency, such as knowing the locations of designated evacuation shelters for those in need, and urging them to keep in mind that staying at home could be an option.

For those in need of special assistance, there are “welfare evacuation centers” that offer barrier-free facilities and qualified staff. But when the city of Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, conducted a survey in April on 19 such facilities, only one — a city-run welfare center — responded that it could accept about 10 such evacuees in the case of a disaster.

The reality was that almost all of the welfare evacuation centers are nursing care facilities for older people that currently are restricting visitation even from family members to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Initially, the city had believed that the 19 welfare evacuation centers would be able to accept up to 350 people. But since that is out of the picture, the city is planning to set up a special space in other shelters that have elevators and multipurpose restrooms, and to dispatch nurses to check up on evacuees.

The city is also asking older people who live on their own and people with severe disabilities who regularly use daycare services and their families to consider using short-term overnight stays at nursing homes for evacuation purposes.

For people with dementia, local residents, welfare facilities and municipalities are already cooperating with each other in checking up on them.

“When there is the forecast of heavy rain, some welfare facilities are recommending them to come and sleep over for the night. If they know each other beforehand, facility officials will be less anxious about accepting them,” a city official in charge said. “We need to coordinate places they can evacuate to on a case-by-case basis.”

Since welfare evacuation shelters won’t be able to accept as many people due to a need to maintain social distancing, the Cabinet Office urged municipalities to look for hotels and inns in the past few months. It also called on local residents to stay at the homes of relatives and friends, or even stay put at their own homes if it is deemed safe.

Due to the damage typhoons have been causing in recent years, the Cabinet Office and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency have released a guideline, saying people primarily need to evacuate but may stay home if they have stockpiled enough supplies, even if their homes are flooded.

Koichi Mori, 61, who supported children with disabilities during the 2016 earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture, says there aren’t many options for them.

“At present, none of the designated shelters and welfare evacuation centers can offer a certain level of hygiene with sufficient supplies and qualified staff,” said Mori. “In the end, they probably won’t have any option but to stay at home.”

But even if they have stocked up on food and water, they may be isolated and won’t have access to other necessities or information, said Mori.

And what worries Mori the most is the possibility of a power outage at the homes of those who are hooked up to ventilators that could be a matter of life and death.

“Subsidies from municipalities to purchase emergency power generators for medical equipment may be needed as well as a network to offer support and advice quickly in time of need,’’ said Mori.

The mother of a 12-year-old boy who uses a ventilator says evacuating from their home in Daizaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, isn’t feasible.

For them, it is a struggle just to pack a humidifier, a large wheelchair and other medical equipment in the car. When heavy rain hit the region last year and the year before, they stayed at their home on a hill, watching anxiously as rainwater flowed down a nearby road like a river.

They purchased a power generator about 10 years ago so that the ventilator won’t be shut down when the power is out.

“But we have never used it so I’m worried if it will work when we actually need it,’’ she said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, purified water used for humidifiers was in short supply, forcing the mother to use boiled tap water for several days.

“Necessary supplies will run short should we be hit by a disaster like an earthquake,” she said, highlighting the need to prepare for the worst beforehand.

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published on June 11.

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