Extreme weather requires disaster response overhaul

The heavy rains in western Japan a month ago, which left more than 230 residents dead or missing in landslides and floods in a broad range of areas, highlighted various challenges faced by the nation’s disaster response system. Despite the early warnings of torrential rains that could cause disasters, most of the victims failed to evacuate promptly enough and died in mudflows or drowned after nearby rivers flooded. We should look into what needs to be done to ensure that residents — especially those who are particularly vulnerable in times of disasters such as elderly people who have trouble evacuating on their own — can take timely action for their safety.

Precipitation reached record-breaking levels in many parts of the areas devastated by the torrential rains. A “special” heavy rain warning — announced when disasters on a scale of “once in several decades” are feared — had been issued in a total of 11 prefectures. But these seemingly extreme weather conditions are no longer rare now — and it is predicted that they will take place in greater frequency in the future, due likely to the effects of climate change. The disaster in western Japan should serve as a trigger for the government and citizens alike to review their emergency preparedness and response for future contingencies.

As in many previous cases of extreme weather, the torrential rains in western Japan has highlighted the risk of residents failing to evacuate despite the issuance of timely and accurate information about disastrous weather conditions. A survey taken in the wake of the early July downpours showed that while more than 80 percent of residents in Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka prefectures were aware that a special heavy rain warning had been issued, only 3 percent of them took action to evacuate.

In the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Pacific coastlines of Tohoku, roughly 60 percent of the victims were aged 65 or older. The government has since revised the basic law on disaster response to require municipalities to make lists of local residents who could face difficulties evacuating on their own in times of disasters — and urge the municipalities to make plans for the safe evacuation of all such residents. But while more than 90 percent of the municipalities have created the lists, many of them have yet to make the evacuation plans based on the lists, citing staff shortages and a lack of residents who can be counted on to assist those people in emergencies.

The Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture — where 51 residents died after a large portion of the district was flooded when nearby rivers breached their embankments — did not have such a plan. Roughly 80 percent of the victims were in their 70s or older. Many of them stayed in their homes and drowned in the flood waters that rose as high as five meters. The residents had been forewarned of the worst-case scenario for flooding — the scale of the flooding that took place roughly matched the data illustrated in a locally distributed hazard map — but even access to that information did not prompt all residents to evacuate in time.

The division of labor among national, prefectural and municipal governments in disaster responses may also need to be reviewed. Under the basic law on disaster response, the decision to issue evacuation advisories and orders in times of natural disasters rests with the heads of municipalities — the government organ closest to local residents — based on information and advice from the Meteorological Agency. The national government, on the other hand, primarily acts only after the disaster has taken place, to provide support for rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts.

But a system should also be considered for the national and prefectural governments to be at the forefront of disaster response in the event it is feared that a major disaster will affect extensive areas — which could overwhelm the capacity of small municipalities — and take charge of efforts to safely evacuate residents before the worst weather conditions hit. For example, if a massive typhoon threatens to hit Tokyo and it is feared that the Arakawa River — which flows through the northern part of the capital — could breach its embankment, there would not be enough time to take steps to evacuate the 1.2 million residents in the area where it’s anticipated flooding will occur if they wait until the typhoon arrives. And the operation to move such a large number of people to safety would require the help of state authorities.

Given that the weather patterns are changing and “unprecedented” weather conditions are no longer unusual, it’s time for government authorities to explore a disaster response system that protect people’s lives when we are confronted with disasters on a scale of what we have never experienced before.