In the torrential rain that inundated rivers and caused mudslides across a wide swath of the country over the past two weeks, most of the victims were elderly people, including 14 residents at a care home for the elderly in Kumamoto Prefecture who were drowned when the facility was quickly engulfed by floodwaters from the Kuma River.
The elderly population similarly accounted for a large portion of the casualties in past disasters caused by extreme weather, including the torrential rain that swept across western Japan and killed more than 200 people in 2018. Many welfare facilities for elderly residents are built on locations deemed at risk of flooding and mudslides. We must learn from these disasters to ensure that the most vulnerable people will be safely evacuated.
Many of the victims who drowned in flooded rivers in Kyushu, where the damage from the recent heavy rains has been concentrated, were elderly residents either living alone or with aging spouses and who often lack the means or find it difficult, due to illness or weakened health, to evacuate on their own. How to extend help for the evacuation of these people will be an increasingly urgent challenge as more and more of the nation’s households will comprise only elderly members — many living alone — amid the rapidly aging and shrinking population.
More than a few care homes for the elderly — with many of their residents suffering from senile dementia or requiring nursing care on a daily basis — are reportedly located on sites at risk of river flooding or landslides caused by torrential rain, because land prices are cheaper in risky locations near rivers or in mountainous areas. In 2009, seven residents of an elderly care home in Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, were killed in a mudslide that buried the facility. In August 2016, all nine residents of such a home in Iwaizumi, Iwate Prefecture, were drowned when the facility was flooded during a typhoon.
The 2016 disaster prompted a revision of disaster-related laws so that care homes for the elderly and medical institutions at locations deemed vulnerable to flooding and landslides are required to devise evacuation plans, complete with planned evacuation sites and means for transporting the residents or patients, and to regularly hold evacuation drills.
As of the beginning of this year, however, such evacuation plans had been compiled by only about 40 percent of the targeted facilities and institutions nationwide. The care home in Kuma, Kumamoto Prefecture, where 14 residents were killed July 4, is said to have put together an evacuation plan and carried out drills each year. But the victims, many in wheelchairs, drowned just as the facility’s staff were trying to move residents to safety on the second floor. The effectiveness of the evacuation plan and whether it was carried out in a timely manner needs to be scrutinized.
So far there have been no effective regulations under which authorities can stop operators of care homes for the elderly from building their facilities on sites susceptible to floods or landslides. An amendment to the law on urban planning, enacted by the Diet just last month, tightened controls to prohibit the building of new welfare facilities, hospitals, schools, supermarkets and so forth on sites deemed to be at high risk of landslides.
But that amendment, which won’t take effect for another two years, doesn’t give authorities the power to force operators to move existing facilities to safer sites — it only allows for subsidies to persuade them to do so. The repeated flooding of elderly homes should remind both the government and operators of the dangers of those facilities in high-risk locations and prompt them to take action.
Extreme weather conditions have grown more frequent and intensive in recent years, defying the conventional wisdom reflected in current measures to prevent flooding and landslides caused by typhoons or downpours. It is all the more urgent to take extra steps to protect the people most vulnerable to disasters. Elderly people repeatedly falling victim to major disasters points to the shortcomings of the nation’s anti-disaster measures. Urgent efforts must be undertaken to fix the holes in the system.
The Japan Times Editorial Board