Typhoons land on Japan every year, and many people often die or go missing. Indeed, typhoons are more vicious than earthquakes, except for really large-scale quakes like the one that struck Kobe in 1995 and killed some 6,000 people.
Last year, of the 29 reported typhoons spawned in Western Pacific, 10 hit Japan. Typhoons and cloudbursts caused more than 230 deaths or missing-person cases, nearly 100 as a result of Typhoon No. 23 alone. In the past 30 years, an average 26.7 typhoons have been generated each year, with a 2.6 of them, on average, striking Japan.
Fifteen typhoons have formed so far this year. Typhoon No. 14 (named “Nabi”), which assailed Japan for three days, left 28 people dead or missing in its wake. It was the strongest since Typhoon No. 13 in 1993. Compared with Hurricane Katrina in the United States, the damage from Typhoon No. 14 was small, but there is no predicting that a typhoon with the same destructive power as Katrina won’t strike Japan.
Although Typhoon No. 14 hit Japan during the Lower House election campaign, there were no serious discussions among candidates about how to prevent or minimize damage from natural disasters. Politicians should take more interest in this issue and come up with clear, viable policy measures.
Under the landslide prevention law, 210,000 locations throughout the country are designated as dangerous. Although the governing Liberal Democratic Party is pushing for smaller government, it should not reduce disaster-prevention efforts.
Typhoon No. 14, packing winds of up to 126 kph, landed on Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, on Sept. 6. Moving slowly, it poured heavy rain over long hours, causing floods and landslides and disrupting transportation networks in Miyazaki, Oita and other parts of Kyushu. It then passed over the Sea of Japan and took a course northeast of Hokkaido.
In Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Honshu), the two wooden supports of the five-arch Kintaikyo Bridge washed away as the Nishiki River became a torrent. The 193-meter bridge, first built in 1673 by feudal lord Kikkawa Hiroyoshi, is considered one of the nation’s three most beautiful bridges. Lost twice before in floods, it was restored in 1952. The typhoon also caused damage to fruit and other agricultural products in many parts of the nation.
In March 2004, the Meteorological Agency, in cooperation with prefectural governments, started compiling data on the amount of rainwater absorbed into the ground. It says that the danger from landslides and mudflows has risen, particularly during the past several years.
Authorities must pinpoint such dangers, share the information with the public, and make sure that evacuation notices reach all citizens who may be affected. Local residents living in potentially dangerous areas should be made aware of the hazards that could develop under certain conditions. Local authorities should issue warnings in easy-to-understand language, avoiding administrative jargon.
One problem with disaster prevention is that local residents in areas often hit by typhoons or earthquakes sometimes lack a sense of crisis because they have experienced natural disasters in the past without suffering casualties or serious property damage. This attitude seemed to apply to some residents of Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, where about 800 households were isolated by floodwaters of Typhoon No. 23 (named “Tokage”) in October 2004. After a levee for the Maruyama River broke, a 54-year-old man is reported to have said, “I made light of the danger, thinking that water would never rise above the second floor, although the first floor had been flooded in the past.”
Another problem reported in Toyooka was the authorities’ slow response to known trouble spots. In February 2002, a 43-year-old man had discovered water seeping from a levee at two locations and reported it to a patrol dispatched by the National Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry. But the ministry did not make any repairs.
A large percentage of recent typhoon victims, dead or missing, have been 60 years old or older: about 65 percent for Typhoon 23 last year and for Typhoon 14 this year. Warnings may not have reached them, or they may have been too weak to evacuate on their own. Increased efforts must be made to assist the elderly when natural disasters strike.
Disaster preparedness cannot rely solely on public works. Smooth communication between authorities and the public, as well as detailed precautionary measures and quick action at the time of a disaster, are indispensable.
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