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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005


No turning back the clock when the walls come tumbling down

Because earthquakes are unpredictable, people who live with them are fatalistic: There's nothing you can do except hope you're in a place that doesn't fall down on top of you. This attitude only covers naked survival, which to most people means everything, but experts predict that in a worst case scenario involving a major quake in Tokyo, about 11,000 people will die, which is a small percentage of the city's population, so the real question about such a disaster is what happens afterward.

The July 23 temblor was relatively benign: no one died and there were only a handful of injuries. Damage was negligible. The scariest thing about the quake was how poorly the authorities reacted to it. At the basic level, thousands of people were stranded because many of the train and subways systems shut down, some for hours, which is to be expected.

What was disconcerting was the lack of consideration given to passengers, who were never told how long they might have to wait for a train. Such a response epitomizes the worst aspect of the bureaucratic mindset: it's best to act ignorant, otherwise people expect something.

At a higher level, people in charge of disaster management proved to be just as unreliable. Because Tokyo's earthquake response system was untested, having been implemented two years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, everyone forgave the bugs in the system. Apparently, the server that received the seismic data was overwhelmed, which meant that it took more than 30 minutes to pass them along to the Meteorological Agency. Until the system is upgraded, they will have to send the data the old-fashioned way, by fax. The national government admitted that this was unacceptable and vowed to make improvements, but what was truly unacceptable was what happened after the data finally arrived.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government maintains a housing complex within walking distance of the government offices in Shinjuku. In the complex live 196 employees charged with carrying out emergency tasks in the case of a disaster. During the weekend of July 23, 34 of these people were on call, but when the call came through only 13 showed up at their designated posts.

Various reasons were given. The staff is supplied with pagers and some said they didn't hear them. More troubling was the report that those who did and called the proper number heard a message that the call was for "a simulation" that actually took place in a distant area of Tokyo some time earlier. In other words, no one had changed the message on the machine.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was pretty mad and said that such slackers don't deserve to live in the special housing (which is reportedly very nice and costs only 50,000 yen a month), but if one reads between the lines of the various media reports it's obvious that government incompetence is less a problem than structural inadequacies are.

For example, those 50,000 elevators that stopped operating when the quake hit, and which couldn't start moving again until technicians visited the buildings and turned them on again. People trapped in elevators is news, but even in those buildings that have new elevators designed to go to the nearest floor in the event of a quake, can residents get out of the buildings easily? There are many elderly people living in highrises. Will they be able to walk down 40 flights during an evacuation? That's an especially difficult feat when everyone else in the building is using the same staircase at the same time.

Map publisher Shobunsha has come out with a new book that shows the best routes for leaving Tokyo on foot after a disaster. Originally scheduled to be in book stores Aug. 4, the publication date was moved up three days after the July 23 quake and the first printing was increased from 60,000 copies to 110,000. People scooped it up and Shobunsha's share price went up noticeably. The maps show routes that have places to sit and rest, public telephones and toilets, convenience stores. What the maps don't mention is the normal clutter that will become obstacles to escape in the event of an earthquake: vending machines, advertising signs, parked bicycles.

The media called July 23 a wake-up call, but what exactly is it we are supposed to acknowledge anew? Is it possible to reverse decades of irresponsible development that has rendered Tokyo that much more dangerous in a major earthquake? Has anyone, for instance, mentioned the highrise epidemic of the past 10 years? Dozens of these monsters are under construction right now. It's implied they are structurally sound, but even if they are, can people get out of them safely?

According to Aera, we are now entering a cycle of greater quake activity, and even if the "big one" is another hundred years away, history has shown that a few near-big ones will hit before then. The media blames the authorities for messing up on July 23, but no one dares talk about the business and government policies that make Tokyo unsafe at any magnitude. Moving the capital out of Tokyo has been a dead issue for a while now, but maybe it should be resurrected. The gridlock that occurred on July 23 proves that at its present size the city can't handle even a moderate earthquake.

Next month, as always, there will be lots of exciting, somewhat pointless drills to commemorate the last killer Tokyo Earthquake, which occurred in 1923, and Gov. Ishihara will surely put on his spiffy uniform and give a related speech, as he did several years ago when he mentioned foreigners who might run riot after a quake. Insulting as the comment was, it's not people we have to be afraid of, but rather the lack of vision and common sense. Tokyo residents are bound to be fatalists, but their leaders have no right to be.

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