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Sunday, Aug. 26, 2001

Millions stranded with no way home

Staff writer

A major earthquake hits. Just as you've practiced in disaster drills, you evacuate. Making it to a safe place, you let out a small sigh of relief.

But it's not over yet. Now you've got to make your way home, perhaps through a devastated city and at night.

Itsuki Nakabayashi, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and an expert in city planning and urban geography, estimates that 3.7 million people might be stranded in Tokyo if a magnitude 7 earthquake strikes the city during the day. He calculated the figure based on the number of people who commute in from up to 20 km away.

"In such a big city, it is not unusual for people to commute for more than 11/2 hours each way. It would be difficult for them to travel that distance immediately after the disaster," said Nakabayashi, who took part in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's latest simulation project to map out a worst-case scenario following a major earthquake. "Disaster-prevention plans in Tokyo should include measures to cope with this situation."

Nakabayashi first made similar calculations 15 years ago, but the study did not attract much attention until the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Devastating Kobe and surrounding areas, and killing more than 6,000 people, that disaster reminded Japanese of the vulnerability of Tokyo, which has a population of 12 million.

According to the results of the latest simulation by the metropolitan government, released four years ago, if a magnitude 7.2 temblor were to hit Tokyo at around 6 p.m. in the winter, about 7,200 people would be killed and 158,000 would be injured.

However, just as in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, most damage would be wrought by fire; about 325,000 buildings (some 20 percent of structures) in Tokyo's 23 wards would be destroyed. When damage outside the 23 wards is added, the total number of buildings razed by fire would reach 380,000.

Factoring in such conditions as time of day, season and wind velocity, the projected damage is 50 times worse than the fire damage in the Kansai earthquake. The Hanshin quake occurred early in the morning before people began the day's activities, and when the wind velocity was less than the 6 meters per second in the Tokyo simulation.

Nakabayashi added that the ensuing fires, which are expected to rage for three days, would be particularly destructive to buildings in areas between Loop highways No.7 (Kan-Nana) and No.6 (Yamate-dori) in central Tokyo, where there are many wooden houses in the Nakano, Shibuya, Toshima and Meguro wards.

"However, the fires would also cause secondary damage to the train systems passing through these areas, robbing commuters from outside Tokyo of a way to get home," he said.

Nakabayashi emphasized that official bodies, companies and individual citizens should take measures to prepare for this situation, which is highly likely but might overwhelm the authorities' capabilities.

The metropolitan government already has an Emergency Communication Office based in its No. 1 Building headquarters, which is ready to swing into action to coordinate relief and rescue operations involving many agencies.

However, Nakabayashi stresses that, "as a disaster-preparedness measure, companies should consider a scenario in which their employees may have to stay in the office overnight or for a day," he said, adding that necessary emergency supplies should be kept in the building.

"Workers should also prepare individually, thinking about whether they know the way back home from the office without using the train system, or if they are prepared to stay at the office," Nakabayashi said.

"And the Tokyo Metropolitan Government or other municipalities need to develop a system to give accurate information to people staying at their offices in the city's central areas or at railway stations."

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