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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tokyo's wood houses a key quake risk


In the wake of the massive earthquake that devastated the northeast last year, scholars and government officials have been revising various estimates of damage should a major temblor strike the capital.

News photo
Firetrap: Wooden houses are densely packed in Tokyo's Higashi-Ikebukuro district. The high-rise building in the center is Sunshine 60. KYODO

In response to these revisions, Tokyo is faced with a mountain of pressing tasks, from rethinking emergency evacuation plans to revamping urban planning to lower the fire risk in older neighborhoods packed with wooden homes.

As of January, the central government predicted a 70 percent probability that a magnitude 7 level earthquake with its epicenter in the Tokyo area will strike within 30 years.

Under the metropolitan government's latest estimates of possible damage, its first review in six years, a magnitude 7.3 quake striking the northern part of Tokyo Bay could kill more than 9,600 people, 1.5 times worse than the grimmest scenario in the past.

The new model for the worst-case scenario estimates that 300,000 structures in Tokyo would be destroyed, over 60 percent due to fire — more than those collapsing as a result of the temblor itself.

It assumes the region is hit at 6 p.m. in winter with 28.8 kph winds fanning the flames.

Among the region's biggest headaches are districts dense with wooden houses, often jammed so close together in narrow alleys that fire engines and ambulances can't possibly reach them directly.

Efforts by Tokyo officials to resolve this dilemma run smack into elderly lifelong residents hesitant to rebuild their homes and complex property rights.

"If there's a fire in this area, that would be it," says Isamu Kubota, 80, who lives in one such neighborhood in the Higashi-Ikebukuro district. "We'd not stand a chance of being rescued."

His two-story wooden house stands less than 1 meter away from his neighbors' and alleys intertwining like a maze in the area are so narrow that an adult can barely pass through.

To improve urban planning, the metropolitan and ward governments are building a street that will serve as a firebreak while encouraging residents to reinforce their homes with concrete.

A plan was developed for about 30 households in Kubota's neighborhood to jointly construct and move into a 12-story apartment building in five years. Some residents are against it, however.

"I wonder if I will live long enough for it to be completed," laments a 92-year-old male resident.

According to the metropolitan government, Tokyo has 16,000 hectares of residential districts jammed with wooden buildings. Around 7,000 of those hectares, including in Higashi-Ikebukuro, have been designated as redevelopment zones, where the amount of land covered by roads, parks and other structures considered flame-resistant has risen to 56 percent.

"Given the residents' old age and other factors, we must seek a speedy solution to this problem," said Yasuaki Togashi, 64, a community leader involved in the area's urban planning. "Once a certain level of support from residents is achieved, we should go ahead and execute the changes based on legally binding powers."

Another issue at hand for central Tokyo, the heart of Japan's political, administrative and economic activities, is how to make sure the central government will continue functioning even if a catastrophic quake strikes the capital.

A project team set up by the Democratic Party of Japan has proposed establishing a replacement emergency hub in Osaka, where many ministries already have branch offices.

Alternative sites have also been chosen for the central emergency headquarters should the prime minister's office be rendered inoperable. They are in order of priority the Cabinet Office, the Defense Ministry and the former site of a U.S. military base in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, that currently houses some emergency-response facilities, including for the Tokyo Fire Department.

Many problems still need to be resolved, such as equipping alternative facilities in the Tachikawa site, some 30 km from central Tokyo, with a radio network for emergency communications that would work if telephone lines are down, and making sure an adequate number of government officials would be able to get there during a disaster.

The metropolitan government estimates a major earthquake in Tokyo would result in 3.39 million evacuees and 5.17 million people who would have difficulty getting to their homes. It is feared that evacuation shelters operated by local authorities alone would be overwhelmed.

Tokyo and neighboring prefectures have also released new tsunami estimates. Under one of Tokyo's scenarios, one of the outlying Izu Islands may face 22-meter-high waves and Shinagawa Ward could see 2.6-meter waves. If floodgates fail to operate, some 2,500 buildings in seven wards would be flooded.

Kanagawa Prefecture in March raised its tsunami estimate for Kamakura from 5 to 7 meters to a maximum of 14.5 meters, predicting that the famous Kamakura Great Buddha and Tsuruoka Hachimangu Shrine will be flooded. Waves as high as 4.9 meters could swamp Yokohama and submerge JR Yokohama Station.

Schools lacked evac plan


About half of the schools in coastal areas in the three prefectures hit hardest by the March 2011 quake and tsunami didn't have tsunami evacuation manuals, the government has found.

Only 50.3 percent of 149 schools in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima that were either hit by the tsunami or were at risk of flooding had specific evacuation measures in their crisis management manuals, according to a study by the education ministry released last week.

Since 2009, schools have been required to create their own crisis management manuals. However, the types of disaster included in the manuals are left to each school.

Of the 149 schools — at which 20.1 percent of students were killed by the tsunami or are still unaccounted for — 71 had been expected before the disaster to be hit by a tsunami, but only 62.0 percent of these had bothered to spell out evacuation measures in their manuals.

The study covered all 2,617 schools including kindergartens in the three prefectures in January.

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