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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS FORM ALLIANCES

Niigata quake spurs disaster-relief rethink


By ERIKO ARITA and AKEMI NAKAMURA
Staff writers

The powerful earthquakes that hit the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture in October, forcing the evacuation of up to 100,000 people, have jolted prefectural and city governments throughout the nation into reviewing their own disaster countermeasures.

News photo
Health minister Hidehisa Otsuji (right) speaks Wednesday to an evacuee at a gymnasium here being used as a shelter. Otsuji was visiting quake-hit areas to assess the needs of residents forced out of their homes.

The central, prefectural and city governments reinforced their disaster measures after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which resulted in the loss of more than 6,000 lives and displaced more than 300,000 people.

One of the major lessons learned from the Hanshin quake was the need to secure sufficient amounts of emergency rations. After the killer quake severed their lifelines and transportation networks, many local governments -- dependent on outside help -- found themselves unable to obtain enough food and drinking water.

Today, many have enough rice, hardtack and drinking water stored to last for a couple of days.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and municipalities within the capital combined have two days of food and four weeks of water (three liters a day for each resident) stored up for a worst-case scenario: a direct hit on the capital by a giant quake originating directly underneath.

Tokyo plans to use 1,700 gas stations as bases of support for the estimated 3.7 million commuters who will be stuck in the city if such a disaster strikes. The designated filling stations are tasked with supplying drinking water, lavatories and resting space, as well as information from emergency radio broadcasts.

"The gas station buildings are constructed under tighter fireproofing and earthquake-resistant standards" than other buildings, said Motoaki Kobayashi, a spokesman for the metropolitan government's Disaster Prevention Bureau.

"At the time of the Hanshin earthquake, (most) gas stations remained intact, whereas many other buildings were destroyed in (quake-induced) fires."

While many local governments have improved preparedness for major disasters, some remain unready.

Katsunori Ishida, assistant director of the Hyogo Prefectural Government's disaster management division, pointed out that some of Hyogo's municipalities have paid little attention to stockpiling emergency rations -- even though the area was severely damaged in 1995.

"Some rural towns -- especially those in rice-producing areas -- have made little progress in preparing emergency food because they assume they have abundant rice supply in the communities," he said.

According to Ishida, those municipalities are not complying with the prefecture's requirement of storing one day's worth of food for local residents.

Elsewhere in the country, local governments have formed agreements to mutually support each other with food, vital goods and personnel.

In Fukushima Prefecture, one of the seven in northeastern Japan that have emergency support agreements with Niigata Prefecture, fact-finding officials were dispatched to Niigata the day after the first series of quakes struck on Oct. 23.

After discovering food was short, Fukushima teamed up with Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures on Oct. 25 to send enough rations to feed 50,000 people, said Susumu Takano, a spokesman for the Fukushima Prefectural Government's disaster measures group.

In addition, the prefecture sent about 20 officials to help their counterparts take care of the evacuees, he said.

"As the Niigata Prefectural Government officials were in utter confusion right after the earthquake, they could not come up with detailed requests for us," Takano said. "So we suggested a menu of possible support we could offer."

Tokyo has formed similar support agreements with several neighboring prefectures.

In May, Suginami Ward, one of Tokyo's 23 wards, formed a mutual disaster support agreement with Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, which was one of the cities hardest hit by the Oct. 23 quakes. Suginami dispatched officials there to provide food and manpower.

In addition to the problem of emergency supplies, the Niigata quakes shed light on how stress and fatigue impact evacuees over extended periods.

Of the 37 confirmed quake fatalities, 14 died after falling ill after the temblors. Some of them were found to be suffering from so-called economy-class syndrome (in which blood clots form during prolonged inactivity) because they had to sleep in their vehicles.

Mikio Maeda, director of the Shizuoka Prefectural Government's disaster prevention office, said the prefecture needs to improve its disaster relief measures to cope with such problems.

"Our (disaster relief) plan does not anticipate that so many residents will take refuge in their vehicles," he said. "What we should do (to prevent economy-class syndrome) is to secure sufficient public shelters for all evacuees."

Shizuoka has been preparing for a major earthquake since 1976 amid persistent forecasts that a magnitude-8 earthquake is due to hit the Tokai region.

Suminao Murakami, director of the Laboratory of Urban Safety Planning, a private think tank, said the public should help itself by re-examining its own preparations.

"Residents should become more aware of the importance of preparing for disaster" by participating in drills and using tools to prevent furniture from being toppled by earthquakes.



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