Have we learned enough from the 1995 Kobe quake?

A quarter century after the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the port city of Kobe and neighboring areas on Jan. 17, 1995, are we better prepared to defend against major disasters? Over the past 25 years, Japan has been hit by a string of big earthquakes, including the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, and even worse casualties and damage are projected if a deadly inland quake hits Tokyo or a mega-quake strikes in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast. The government, businesses and every individual need to make sure the right lessons have been learned from the 1995 quake.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake — the first big inland quake to directly hit a major Japanese city after World War II — shattered the postwar “safety myth” in this country. The magnitude 7.3 quake killed some 6,400 people and injured more than 40,000, destroyed 240,000 houses and crippled the city’s urban infrastructure.

The killer quake exposed the nation’s poor crisis management system. Unable to grasp the extent of the damage for hours after the quake, the national government came under heavy criticism for its slow response to the catastrophe. The lack of a mechanism in Tokyo to promptly gather information from and communicate with the disaster-ravaged areas paralyzed the government’s disaster-response functions. That led the government to improve its crisis management. A Cabinet team was launched to gather information on big disasters on a 24-hour basis. When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit on March 11, 2011, the government held the first meeting of its emergency disaster management team within 30 minutes of the magnitude 9.0 quake.

On the other hand, efforts to reduce the damage from big earthquakes remain slow. Most of the people killed in the 1995 quake were crushed by houses and buildings toppled by the temblor. Thereafter, the government started offering subsidies to promote quake-proof work on houses built under pre-1980s building standards. But the most recent data available show that only 82 percent of houses nationwide had been made quake-resistant as of 2013, and the government’s target of increasing the ratio to 95 percent by this year is deemed out of reach. When a series of deadly temblors hit Kumamoto Prefecture in 2016, most of the buildings destroyed were wooden houses built under the old standards.

Similarly of concern in a major quake striking big cities are clusters of old wooden houses vulnerable to fire. In the Hanshin quake, roughly 7,000 houses burned down — many of them concentrated in areas with narrow streets difficult for fire engines to navigate. Clusters of old wooden houses still remain in large numbers in Tokyo and other big urban areas. The government’s Central Disaster Management Council estimates that in a worst-case scenario, more than 400,000 houses would be lost to fires in a big inland quake devastating the capital, and as many as 16,000 people, or some 60 percent of the total projected casualties, could die in those blazes. The Hanshin quake highlighted how vulnerable these clusters of old houses are to devastating quakes. Measures need to be taken to avert a repeat of that disaster.

Many local medical institutions were paralyzed when their facilities were damaged by the Kobe earthquake, hampering aid to the injured. Since then, disaster medical assistance teams, based on a model used in the United States, have been established for emergency medical responses. Key hospitals in each area have been designated as institutions equipped to provide medical services in times of big disasters, and plans have been laid out for the transport of patients to institutions outside the disaster-ravaged areas.

But measures to secure medical aid for disaster victims are still insufficient. A study released last year by the Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention and the Nippon Medical School reportedly showed that if Tokyo is directly hit by a magnitude 7 inland quake, a shortage of medical staff could leave some 6,500 people — or about one-third of the expected 21,500 injured in the temblor — unable to receive treatment and vulnerable to death within eight days of the disaster. In a big quake ravaging Tokyo, it will be difficult for outside rescue teams to enter central areas due to clogged street traffic and fires. How to rescue people whose lives could be saved with prompt medical attention in disasters remains an ongoing challenge.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake shed light on the problem of disaster survivors, especially elderly people, suffering from illnesses and dying due to sudden changes in living conditions, such as having to stay in crowded evacuation shelters over an extended period or being separated from their families or other relatives and local communities. Thousands of survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami suffered “disaster-related” deaths. The poor conditions in evacuation shelters were also highlighted during typhoons and floods last year.

Disaster response poses an ongoing challenge in this calamity-prone country. Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the nation has been battered by a series of disasters that defied conventional wisdom. As extreme weather conditions become more frequent and harsh, due apparently to the effects of climate change, typhoons and heavy rains are becoming more powerful, causing more severe flooding and landslides than had been anticipated, and causing us to lag in our efforts to reduce the impact of natural disasters. When large disasters strike big cities, paralysis of urban infrastructure and traffic system could magnify the damage. We must continue to improve our disaster response.

The Japan Times Editorial Board