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Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012

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Fire trap: A man walks along an alley in the Kyojima 3-chome district in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, on Friday. The area is densely packed with old wooden houses highly susceptible to fire. SATOKO KAWASAKI

Threat of fire hangs over Tokyo quake prep

Experts advise surviving blazes will be priority after Big One

Staff writer

It was tsunami that ravaged the coastal towns in the Tohoku region last year. But if a massive earthquake strikes Tokyo, fires will be the potential killer that people will need to flee, as was the case in the Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923.

People in the metropolitan area will also face other major threats that didn't exist in Tohoku — many buildings will collapse and block streets and the railway system will be paralyzed, leaving millions of urban commuters trapped as "refugees" unable to get home, at least for the first days after the disaster.

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's latest damage projection, about 9,700 people would be killed if an earthquake of magnitude 7.3 strikes directly beneath the greater Tokyo area — and the risk of such a powerful quake is 70 percent in the next 30 years, according to experts at the science ministry.

"It could be tomorrow, or 30 years later, or much later than that. But they have hit Tokyo in the past, and it will certainly happen again," Itsuki Nakabayashi, a professor at Meiji University and an expert on city planning and urban geography, told The Japan Times.

"You never know where an earthquake will strike," Nakabayashi said. "The important thing is to do image training. Think about what you should do if a quake strikes, wherever you go."

Of the predicted 9,700 deaths, about 5,600 would be a result of buildings collapsing, while the remaining 4,100 would be caused by fires sparked by the quake, according to the metropolitan government's report on its damage projections.

"The biggest challenge would be how to protect yourself and the city from the fires," Nakabayashi said.

The metropolitan government estimates that in the worst-case scenario, 188,100 houses will burn down, mostly in areas packed with wooden homes that stretch around the JR Yamanote Line.

The Kyojima district in Sumida Ward and Omorinaka in Ota Ward are among areas considered particularly vulnerable to fires.

These areas, designated by the metropolitan government as "mokumitsu chiiki" (districts dense with wooden houses), are chock-full of old, wooden houses and narrow mazes of alleys where no ambulance or firetrucks will ever make it through. Experts say if a blaze starts in one of these structures, it could spread quickly and engulf entire neighborhoods.

The number of casualties and the damage, however, can be reduced if people prepare for a disaster and cooperate when the critical time comes, said Nakabayashi, who was one of the experts helping to compile the latest damage projections.

"If an earthquake strikes after people stop preparing for one, the disaster will be huge," he said. "(But) if people keep the threat in mind and continuously prepare, the damage won't be that bad."

To mitigate the destruction, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and wards have been trying to reduce the clusters of old, wooden structures by providing subsidies to owners to rebuild or renovate their homes.

The metropolitan government also has plans to widen streets in such areas to act as firebreaks, forcing reluctant residents to move out.

But extensive urban renewal like this will take a long time. A key to stopping the spread of fires is to extinquish them as quickly as possible, Nakabayashi said. "Every home should have at least one fire extinguisher. If a fire breaks out in your neighborhood, you can all take your fire extinguishers there and work together to douse the fire," he said.

If no extinguisher is available, soak a bath towel in water and cover the fire with it, he recommended.

"You need to put out a fire within around three to five minutes after it breaks out. Once a fire reaches the ceiling, only a firefighter can put it out. All people can do is flee to their designated evacuation areas," he said.

Every municipality in Tokyo has designated locations to be used as postquake evacuation sites, usually parks or public school grounds.

Toshihiro Osaragi, a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology who conducted a simulation on what will happen if fire breaks out in areas densely packed with wooden houses, said that when heading for an evacuation site, people should walk along wide streets even if there may be a longer route to get to their destination.

"Some wooden houses will collapse and block roads, and it will become like a maze. If you are a stranger to an area, it could be hard to get out and you'd be struck," Osaragi said.

Another issue Tokyo faces is how to deal with people who won't be able to return home when the public transportation network comes to a screeching halt.

The metropolitan government projects that more than 5 million people could be struck in workplaces, schools or out in the streets, unable to return home.

On March 11, 2011, an estimated 3.52 million people were stuck in the city with nowhere to stay, jamming train stations and streets.

The government advises people to stay in buildings for a while immediately after the quake and refrain from moving. If pedestrians pack the streets, they may block ambulances and firetrucks, and they could find themselves caught up in fires, experts say.

Nakabayashi of Meiji University said people won't be able to move around for at least one day.

The metropolitan government has established an ordinance that tells companies to "make efforts" to stock enough food and water for their employees to survive for three days. The ordinance takes effect next April 1.

Under the ordinance, public facilities run by the metropolitan government will be designated as temporary places to accommodate people unable to return home.

Municipalities are also preparing temporary evacuation places to receive people. For example, Chiyoda Ward has entered agreements with nearly 20 entities — including Mitsubishi Estate Corp., Hotel New Otani and Hosei University — that can accommodate some 12,000 people in total.

The metropolitan government has also made agreements with operators of many convenience stores, family-style restaurants and gas stations to designate them as support centers for people trying to make their way home.

These designated stores and facilities, which will be called "kitaku shien stations" (stations to support people who return home), will allow people to use their bathrooms while providing water and the latest disaster-related information.

Even if people can safely return home after a few days, in the worst case scenario there could be more than 3 million people still in dire straits due to quake damage of their home or because essential utilities like water, electricity and gas could be cut.

Experts say people should always stockpile enough food and water to survive three days without help from the government, as it could take a while for relief supplies to get through.

Nakabayashi said it is vital for everyone to make their homes as safe as possible, such as by securing furniture like cabinets and bookcases, to reduce the destruction from a major earthquake.

"Even if you cannot renovate your house, you can secure furniture to the walls, which takes only a little money. Some municipalities (in Tokyo) have volunteers to help seniors do that," Nakabayashi said.

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