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Four weeks have passed since the Niigata-Chuetsu Earthquake struck. The good news is that reconstruction is making progress. Schools in the disaster zone have resumed classes, the Kan-etsu Expressway has reopened to traffic, and the region’s well-known sake breweries have started shipping again. The bad news is that, amid the continuing aftershocks, there are still more than 10,000 people living in evacuation shelters.

According to the Niigata Local Meteorological Observatory, the first of Niigata’s heavy snowfalls usually comes in late November. Indeed, winter is just around the corner. But construction work for temporary housing reportedly is not progressing as fast as expected.

In addition to building temporary housing, local governments have decided to provide adjacent day-care facilities so that elderly people can have access to bathing and meal services. They are also taking steps to maintain predisaster communities by having villagers close together in the temporary housing. In this respect, they are learning from the experience of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, when there were cases of elderly people suffering lonely deaths in the temporary housing because they were isolated from their communities.

The temporary housing built in the wake of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was used for five years. Ideally people should spend as little time as possible in temporary housing, but stays might have to be prolonged for many victims. Therefore, a safe, robust living environment must be built.

To help finance the reconstruction of damaged houses, measures have already been taken on the basis of a law for disaster assistance and a law to restore normal life for affected residents. The government and Niigata Prefecture have announced that they will respond in a generous manner, applying these laws flexibly and adding extra assistance. The latter law was enacted after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and a revision went into effect in April that raised the maximum amount of assistance to 3 million yen per victim. However, the use of this assistance is limited to the dismantlement and removal of housing that has been completely or substantially destroyed, land readjustment and the procurement of household effects.

After the Niigata-Chuetsu Earthquake the opposition parties submitted a revision of the law to the extraordinary session of the Diet that calls for expanding the application of the assistance to include construction, purchase and repair expenses. The National Association of National Governors has also urgently called for a similar revision. Although only half a year has passed since the last amendment to the law, the Diet should put priority on assistance to the victims and finish debates on this newly proposed revision as quickly as possible.

This time, learning from the experience of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, many local governments around the country have provided assistance to Niigata’s victims. As well as support from prefectures with which Niigata Prefecture had concluded mutual disaster-support agreements — Hokkaido, the Tohoku region, Gunma, Nagano, Toyama, and Ishikawa — material and personnel assistance also have come from areas with which Niigata did not have such an agreement.

Immediately after the first temblor struck, medical teams and emergency fire-fighting and rescue units, which had been set up after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, raced to the scene from around the country. Danger surveys were virtually completed early this month. At present staff, nurses, mental-care counselors, and other specialists are busy issuing disaster-victim certificates, managing evacuation facilities, assessing damage, collecting garbage, restoring sewerage systems and otherwise assisting victims. Garbage trucks and mobile libraries have arrived from other locales as well.

Nerima Ward in Tokyo dispatched staff in response to a request from Kawaguchi-machi, where the earthquake measured a maximum 7 on the Japanese intensity scale. Kawaguchi-machi and Nerima Ward do not have a disaster-support agreement but the two municipalities have shared a lively exchange relationship since Kawaguchi-machi began exhibiting its vegetables and other specialties at Nerima’s festival about 10 years ago. Nearly 30 staff members from Nerima are assisting in the management of an evacuation facility and the issue of a public-relations newspaper. Nerima also sent six garbage trucks to collect resource-rich trash and bring it back to Nerima for processing.

The end of the year is a busy time for all municipalities, but we hope that local governments will continue to dispatch specialists, equipment and materials to Niigata in response to the disaster zone’s needs, which will continue to change as reconstruction progresses.

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