Review nation’s defenses against torrential rains

The torrential rains that hit wide areas of western Japan since last weekend caused landslides and flooding, resulting in massive damage and leaving at least 110 people dead and dozens of others unaccounted for. The heavy toll came despite a maximum alert issued by the Meteorological Agency Friday evening for torrential rains of an intensity that “had never been experienced before” and that presented “a pressing and grave danger.” While search and rescue operations continue for the victims, whether and how the imminent risks posed by the downpours were effectively shared with residents in the areas hit by the disaster, and what actions the residents took for their safety in response to the information provided, should be closely reviewed.

The heavy rain alert issued by the Meteorological Agency for as many as nine prefectures in western Japan called for taking maximum-level caution against severe disasters such as landslides and flooding. The government began issuing such alerts in 2013 based on a lesson from a typhoon that caused heavy damage in the Kii Peninsula in 2011 in which nearly 100 people either died or went missing across the country: that the level of danger posed by the extreme weather may not have been adequately conveyed to the public. The special alert, which is triggered by the forecast of a weather condition that “could happen only once in several decades,” must be communicated from prefectural to municipal governments, which in turn must take steps to alert local residents.

But despite evacuation calls by local governments, many of the victims were killed by landslides that buried their houses where they remained for the duration of the torrential rains, while others were swept away by flooding rivers in their neighborhoods — some inside their vehicles as they were trying to escape. That raises the question of how seriously the imminent danger cited in the special alert was taken by residents and whether it prodded them to take action to ensure their safety. As we confront more volatile and extreme weather conditions, what must change is not just the way disaster-related information is announced and communicated by government authorities, but the mindset of residents who need to act on the information.

The special alert for heavy rains issued in Kyoto, Gifu, Hyogo, Tottori, Okayama, Hiroshima, Ehime, Kochi, Fukuoka, Saga and Nagasaki prefectures were lifted in all the affected areas by Sunday afternoon, but the Meteorological Agency on Monday called for continued vigilance against more damage from landslides and flooding. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who said 73,000 police, Self-Defense Forces troops and firefighters are involved in the search and rescue efforts, canceled a planned trip to Europe and the Middle East for which he had been scheduled to depart on Wednesday to sign an economic partnership agreement with the European Union.

Landslides have taken place at more than 230 sites in at least 28 prefectures, while river flooding was observed in more than 200 locations. In one district in the city of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, some 4,600 houses — or about 30 percent of the total in the area — were flooded after a nearby river breached its embankment, at one point leaving more than 1,000 residents stranded on rooftops or the top floors of their houses. As of Sunday evening, some 23,000 people were seeking refuge at evacuation shelters across 15 prefectures.

As of Monday morning, 37 train lines run by 13 operators in the rain-drenched areas remained out of service. The restoration of train service on some lines may take weeks, or even months, as bridges were swept away by flooding rivers and train tracks were damaged as the ground beneath them washed away or they were covered by landslides. Operations at some automotive plants remained suspended as traffic-network disruptions wreaked havoc on the supply of parts and components. Supplies of goods and foodstuffs to supermarkets and convenience stores in the areas were similarly impacted.

The torrential rains that drenched the wide areas of western Japan — from Kyushu to Shikoku, Chugoku, Kansai and the Chubu regions — were caused by the passing of a typhoon and the subsequent inflow of warm and humid air as the rain front lingered across the Japanese archipelago. Both the level of precipitation and the extent of the areas hit by the heavy rains from the beginning were well above the levels that prompt routine heavy rain alerts. But the changing weather patterns in this country also indicate that torrential rains of similar scale could hit again anytime. In the latest disaster, the damage was extensive despite the alerts that were issued early on. How people responded to such alerts should be scrutinized so that lessons can be learned and applied to future disasters.