Only several days after we breathed a sigh of relief with the passage of typhoon No. 23 — which wreaked the worst typhoon damage in 25 years and left 92 persons dead or missing — the Japanese archipelago was rocked by a series of powerful earthquakes centering on the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture and measuring above 6 (with 7 as maximum) on the Japanese seismic-intensity scale. Twenty-five people were killed and more than 100,000 evacuated. Every possible effort must be made to provide quick relief and assistance to victims.
The quake caused the derailment of a Shinkansen train, the pride of Japan, for the first time in the four decades that the bullet trains have operated. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported, but the Joetsu Shinkansen Line is going to be closed for some time. The restoration of utility services in the region is taking time, too.
Now is an appropriate time for us to reflect on how damage from natural disasters can be kept to a minimum. The number of typhoons that have made landfall in Japan this year has reached an all-time high of 10. Many places have seen landslides, flooding and collapsed breakwaters. If July’s torrential rains in Niigata, Fukushima and Fukui are included, the number of dead or missing from rain and windstorm damage exceeds 220 persons. Some of these victims might have been saved if evacuation guidance had been faster.
A common characteristic of windstorm damage is that victims tend to be elderly. In typhoon No. 23, people aged 60 or over accounted for 65 percent of the dead or missing. An aged couple died after being buried alive in the city of Shikoku-Chuo, Ehime Prefecture. After typhoon No. 21 passed in September, the couple had asked the city to survey the hill behind their house. The city did so but judged that there was no pressing danger. It did not issue a warning to evacuate before the hill came crashing down on them.
In Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, 800 households were cut off by a flooded river, but the local fire station and meteorological observatory were unable to act properly because they were flooded as well. Even in low-lying areas where flooding occurs every few years or so, residents lacked awareness of the danger. Evacuation orders were issued, but many people were just too slow to move. In Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, no evacuation order was issued for the west bank of the river, and a tourist bus got stranded in the flood. The passengers and driver had to climb onto the roof of the vehicle, where they spent the night soaked and calling for help before being rescued the following morning. Photographs of their narrow escape are hair-raising.
In the coastal city of Muroto, Kochi Prefecture, record high waves washed away a section of a concrete breakwater, damaging homes and causing fatalities. The lesson here is that facilities must be checked regularly. In a nationwide survey of river embankments carried out this past summer, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport identified 975 dangerous places in need of repair.
The ministry also reports that, on the basis of the Land Disaster Prevention Law, there are as many as 210,000 dangerous places nationwide. Nevertheless, prefectures have put only 213 places on alert. The problem apparently is that such alerts place restrictions on residence, and the authorities face resistance from people who do not want to move or seek compensation.
Then came the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake. In Ojiya, according to the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, the acceleration — which indicates the intensity of the shaking — registered 1,500 gals, nearly double the 818 gals recorded in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995.
The derailed Joetsu Shinkansen just came to a stop on an elevated track; thankfully none of the more than 100 passengers suffered any serious injury. Landslides occurred in several places, and many people in isolated communities had to be rescued by Self-Defense Force helicopters. Work to restore the Kanetsu Expressway, local railway lines as well as water, electricity and gas services that were cut off in many places is proceeding slowly. Evacuation centers have little food and drinking water. Prompt assistance is essential. Unlike a typhoon, an earthquake strikes without warning. Perhaps residents were not mentally prepared to deal with such a disaster.
Whatever disaster may occur, damage and suffering will be less if people are prepared. Both citizens and the administration should heed the lessons from the natural disasters that have hit the Japanese archipelago this year.
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