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Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011

EDITORIAL

Five million people

How do you feed, transport and care for 5 million people? The Tokyo Metropolitan Government needs to answer that question after a recent Cabinet Office survey found that more than 5 million people were stranded in the Tokyo metropolitan area after the March 11 earthquake.

The Cabinet Office's estimate revealed 3.5 million Tokyo residents and commuters and hundreds of thousands of residents and commuters of Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki prefectures were unable to return home. That stranded slice of the area's population is larger than that of most world cities.

Unfortunately, the enormity of the problem of feeding, sheltering and providing for that number of people has yet to be sufficiently addressed. The 5 million figure is surely a low estimate. An estimated 40 million people use Tokyo area trains and subways on an average day. Tokyo Vice Gov. Naoki Inose announced an ordinance calling on companies in Tokyo to stockpile three days' worth of water and emergency food. That is a small step in the right direction, but it is evident that much more needs to be done.

The ordinance failed to include any punishment for noncompliance nor any method for inspection. Without oversight, checking or enforcement, it is probably only the largest companies with budgets and facilities that can thoroughly meet the request, and then, most likely, only for their employees.

Not all 5 million people stranded on that day worked for big companies. The metropolitan government needs to work with small and medium-sized businesses as well, not to mention planning for all the people with nowhere nearby to go.

The vice governor should focus preparation efforts in other ways as well. A three-day supply of food and water may sound good, but consider that Tokyo's supply networks run on day-by-day systems that can quickly become disrupted, as they were after March 11. The empty shelves in Tokyo and sporadic panic buying at that time revealed how fragile Tokyo's supply chain really is. It took much more than three days to get supplies moving again in Tohoku.

The vice governor might also push for an ordinance ensuring shelter. If an earthquake strikes in cold or rainy weather, the urgency and complexity of the problem would increase considerably.

In the cold, a warm blanket is just as crucial as a rice ball or bottle of water. After the last quake, many Tokyoites walked or biked home for hours without complaint. However, water, food, walking shoes and bicycles also sold out quickly. After a more serious quake, clearing roads will become just as important as shelter. Plans must be put in place for transportation.

An ordinance for information and cellphone networks is also essential. After March 11, nearly all cellphone capacity was overwhelmed as people reacted in the most human way — contacting loved ones. Difficulty getting in touch with children, elderly parents or people needing care is more than an irritation; it is potentially dangerous. Being able to contact family, friends and colleagues will facilitate the movement and safety of people. Though emergency cellphone networks have been set up, the metropolitan government needs to ensure they will actually work.

Safety after a disaster will require more than an ordinance with no punitive provisions. It will require budgeting, oversight and enforcement. It is no good to fine companies after an earthquake happens. These provisions should be required and enforced in advance, just as building codes and safety checks make certain construction materials meet safety standards.

In the event of an earthquake, a safe building will not only have a structure that remains standing, but will also provide food and shelter for people.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, to its credit, has updated its survival manual. Running to 86 bilingual pages, it should be required reading for all citizens in the Tokyo area. The downloadable PDF provides clear Japanese and English explanations about procedures, precautions and information, as well as a bilingual glossary of important disaster-related terms.

In addition to these helpful little tips, though, the metropolitan government needs to provide greater transparency about its overall planning. Practical guidelines are a great help, but allowing citizens to know the larger sweep of emergency plans will foster better cooperation and greater patience among the population. Top-down control and let-the-authorities-handle-it thinking are likely to increase problems, not reduce them.

Getting 5 million people, not to mention all the other millions, to do anything is a major task. The metropolitan government — needs much more preparation for the next earthquake, especially since some experts have revised — upward — estimates of its likelihood.

Tokyo should consider itself lucky to have gotten off so easily and be proud to have had the strength to snap back to relative normality so quickly after March 11. It is unlikely to be so easy next time.



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