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Since Japan lies in the path of typhoons, wide areas of the nation suffer from floods and landslides every year. Cloudbursts also wreak havoc in limited areas. Accurate information is crucial in preventing injuries, deaths and property damage when disasters strike. In a welcome move, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is making efforts to improve disaster-prevention communication between administrative organizations and local residents. The efforts include making disaster-prevention jargon easier to understand and improving the accuracy of information.

Poor communication was responsible for some of the damage sustained in 2004 when 230 people died or went missing due to typhoons and heavy rains. When Niigata Prefecture was hit by a cloudburst, official advice to evacuate came too late. Even after the advice was issued some residents did not evacuate. In one case, only 12 minutes following the issuance of this advice, an embankment burst, wreaking death and destruction upon one community. Information concerning rising river levels apparently failed to be adequately conveyed to local governments and residents. The situation was compounded by the use of official jargon that was difficult for ordinary citizens to comprehend.

At present, there are two categories of flood-related jargon. One is intended to help flood brigades decide what course of action to take; the other concerns the degree of flood danger. Because ordinary citizens have trouble understanding such jargon, many cannot determine the seriousness of the situation.

Jargon related to the deployment of water brigades now includes “water level for reporting (tsuho suii)” and “warning level (keikai suii)” — phrases that make little sense to ordinary citizens. There are two expressions concerning the degree of flood danger — “dangerous water level (kiken suii)” and “special-warning water level (tokubetsu keikai suii).” Few ordinary citizens know the difference between the two.

Under the initiative of the ministry, the jargon will be paraphrased to make it easier to understand. The most dangerous water level will be “imminent danger of flooding (hanran kiken suii),” used in place of “dangerous water level.” This will be followed — in descending degrees of water-level danger — by: “consider evacuation” (hinan handan suii),” used in place of a “special-warning water level” mainly for smaller rivers; “take flood precautions (hanran chui suii),” requiring mobilization of flood brigades, used in place of “keikai suii”; and “put flood brigades on standby (suibodan taiki suii),” which will be used in place of “water level for reporting.”

These easier-to-understand words will be used starting next year. If the water level reaches the point of “consider evacuation,” municipal governments will start considering whether they should issue evacuation advisories.

In an effort to increase the accuracy of typhoon-related information, starting next fiscal year, the Meteorological Agency, which operates under the ministry, will issue a report on a typhoon’s position and strength every three hours instead of every 12 hours as is currently done. In fiscal 2008, the agency will start issuing typhoon-related predictions five days in advance in addition to current warnings of three days in advance.

When a road is likely to be blocked because of a landslide, warnings will be made issued one to two hours before an expected road closure, using radio broadcasts and road signs. There is also a proposal to gather information on road conditions during heavy rains from ordinary citizens by mobile phone and place the information on the ministry’s Web site. While it will be difficult to determine the accuracy of such information, the ministry’s efforts to improve the quality of disaster-prevention information constitutes a step forward.

In a related move, the Central Disaster Prevention Council headed by the prime minister has decided to establish a special study group to work out relief and reconstruction measures if a big river in or near the metropolitan region floods. It will study how to safely evacuate residents when floods are predicted, what kinds of emergency measures should be taken when floods occur and how to restore lifelines afterward. It will also decide what roles business enterprises, local governments, the police and the Self-Defense Forces should play.

The move is a timely reminder that floods as well as earthquakes pose a great danger to the nation. It is estimated that if a violent cloudburst caused the Ara River in Tokyo’s Kita Ward to flood — an event estimated to take place every 200 years — 2.14 million households in Tokyo and Saitama could be inundated, causing up to 33 trillion yen in damage.

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