On Oct. 23, 2004, a series of powerful earthquakes, including one with a magnitude of 6.8, devastated the Chuetsu region in Niigata Prefecture. Of the 51 deaths, 16 were directly caused by the devastation. Most of the remaining deaths were caused by “economy-class syndrome,” in which survivors who tried to live out of their cars in the wake of the quakes suffered blood clots in their legs. A year later, 9,000 survivors still live in prefabricated houses. They must find new residences by December 2006, when their temporary-housing facilities are scheduled to close. Some survivors have lost sources of income, and roads remain closed in 47 places.

Many communities hit by the temblors were located in mountainous areas and became isolated. Lessons must be learned to minimize damage in future earthquakes. One lesson is the importance of quake-proofing lines of communication. In the village of Yamakoshi (now part of the city of Nagaoka), which was hit by a quake with an intensity greater than six on the Japanese scale of seven, it took the village mayor up to six hours to get in touch with the Niigata Prefectural Government. His barely operable mobile phone was the only link between the village and the prefectural government in Niigata City.

Landslides made roads impassable at many places in Yamakoshi village and power blackouts rendered ordinary telephones unusable. Most mobile phones were also unusable because the quakes damaged their base antennas. As a result, the communities in the village were isolated and the villagers were unable to send their rescue requests to the village office. The latter, in turn, had a difficult time grasping the extent of the damage. The prefectural government had built a satellite-based emergency-radio network linking it with municipal governments in the prefecture, but this system did not work either because the strong tremors damaged the radio equipment installed in the Yamakoshi village office.

The central government is pushing a plan to raise the percentage of quake-proof residential buildings from the current 75 percent to 90 percent in 10 years. But this plan does not cover public buildings. In the event of a large earthquake, local government buildings will serve as centers for rescue activities and school buildings will become refuge centers. In the Niigata Chuetsu earthquakes, the office buildings of four municipal governments were damaged beyond use. Only half the public buildings in Japan are now quake-proof. The government should set a numeral target for making public buildings quake-proof as soon as possible, and local governments should set similar goals on their own.

The Niigata Chuetsu earthquakes also showed the importance of cooperation between municipalities. Municipalities that had signed large-scale natural-disaster mutual-assistance agreements with those Niigata municipalities affected by the temblors sent in teams to aid post-quake reconstruction. In 1996, the nation’s prefectural governments signed similar mutual-assistance agreements with each other. It is desirable that all municipalities strive to enter such agreements. By spelling out ahead of time an action plan, which should include sections having responsibilities and transport routes to be used in the event of an emergency, disaster responses can be greatly improved.

The fact that a Tokyo Fire Department rescue team saved 2-year-old Yuta Minagawa from a landslide in Nagaoka four days after he was buried by it offers another lesson: Rescue teams with advanced equipment and special training are necessary to save as many lives as possible. The Tokyo team was equipped with an electromagnetic wave-utilizing sensor designed to locate survivors buried in rubble. The central government’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency plans to gradually introduce similar advanced rescue teams in 13 other major cities starting next year. This project should be pushed forward as fast as possible.

In addition to preparing for future earthquakes, the present plight of survivors must not be forgotten. Housing is a big problem. Under a law enacted in 1998 following the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, a natural-disaster survivor who has had his or her residence destroyed or heavily damaged can receive up to 3 million yen. But high-income people are not eligible and there are restrictions on how the money can be used. The funds can be used for demolishing a damaged house or for leveling the ground for housing construction, but they cannot be spent on the actual construction of the new residence. The government and political parties should carefully listen to the opinions of Niigata Chuetsu earthquake survivors and revise the law as necessar

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