Improving disaster responses

Typhoon Wipha, the 26th typhoon of the year, has left at least 51 people dead or missing on Tokyo’s Izu-Oshima Island. It is regrettable that even though it was known early on that the typhoon would be very strong, sufficient preparations were not taken to minimize damage and casualties. The central government and the Oshima municipal government must carry out an investigation to determine what mistakes were made and publicize the results.

Wipha, the strongest typhoon in 10 years, brought powerful winds and torrential rains on Oct. 16 to the 91.06 sq.-km island, which lies 120 km south of Tokyo and has a population of just over 8,300. Many houses were washed away or buried in mud.

Some 1,100 personnel including firefighters, police and Self-Defense Force troops were sent in after the disaster. But soil conditions made it almost impossible to use heavy machinery, slowing efforts to reach and rescue or recover victims.

Mayor Masafumi Kawashima of Oshima Town and the deputy mayor had decided to go on a business trip despite the forecast that a strong typhoon was approaching and were away when it struck. Early on the morning of Oct. 16, the Meteorological Agency issued a warning that strong torrential rains would hit the island, and the Oshima police station of the Metropolitan Police Department asked the town office to issue an evacuation order. But the town office only chose to use the disaster-prevention radio and public-address system to ask townspeople to take precautions because flood conditions were taking place.

Mayor Kawashima received calls about the island’s situation from a town office worker, who told him conditions were bad, but the mayor decided not to issue an evacuation order. There was also a strong opinion among the town’s officials and disaster prevention workers that it would be too dangerous for residents to evacuate their homes while the winds and rains were raging.

With the mayor still absent, the town — led by the head of the secretariat of the town’s board of education — belatedly set up a headquarters to deal with the disaster around 5:15 p.m. on Oct. 16. But by then the flood and mudslides had taken place.

Last Friday it was reported that shortly after 6 p.m. on Oct. 15, the Meteorological Agency and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had alerted the Oshima Town office about the danger of possible mudslides. But the town did not take any action and neglected to pass the warning to residents. Town official later said they took no action because at that point they thought that the wind and rain was not strong enough to cause such a disaster. In retrospect, their decision to ignore the warnings of experts cost many residents their lives.

The lesson for local government officials is that when a typhoon is approaching, they must realize that conditions can change rapidly, heed the opinions of experts and take all necessary measures to protect the lives of residents.

Currently the Meteorological Agency can only issue warnings. Perhaps a law is needed that would empower prefectural governments to, upon the advice of the Meteorological Agency, declare a state of emergency during times of extreme weather that would allow them to issue orders to local officials.