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Lessons from Kyushu’s ’17 heavy rainfall

The Yomiuri Shimbun

From left, Yasuhiro Mitani, Ichiro Matsuo, Muneharu Nakagai

The Yomiuri ShimbunJuly 5 marked one year since heavy rains hit northern Kyushu, resulting in the death or disappearance of 42 people, including related deaths. With the typhoon season now under way in Japan, nowhere in the country is free from the risk of torrential rains.

The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with three people about how the lessons of past disasters should be applied, the state of disaster preparations today, and issues involved in helping stricken areas rebuild. The following are excerpts from the interviews.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 5, 2018)

Self-help, mutual assistance can save lives

Amid the heavy rains in northern Kyushu, some local residents saved their own lives by taking action themselves. You could say this demonstrated the power of self-help, in which individuals boost their ability to prevent disasters, and of mutual help, in which people in an area support each other.

As a research arm of the nonprofit organization Crisis and Environment Management Policy Institute (CeMI), we research disasters that have taken place in Japan and abroad. So far, we’ve visited the areas stricken by the 2017 heavy rains in northern Kyushu three times, interviewing residents about what happened at the time of the disaster and other matters.

In a rural community in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, which suffered tremendous damage, we were told that some of the residents drew on the lessons from previous rain disasters, and made their own rule that they would evacuate as soon as it looked like houses near the river would flood. So they started evacuating three hours before the order was given. In this community, not a single life was lost. This could be considered a good example of a community studying beforehand what damage might occur, and uniting together to reduce risks.

When a disaster occurs, government bodies are swamped by tasks such as gathering information. If the disaster is a major one, then cell phone communications and disaster-prevention radio systems may become dysfunctional, and residents may not be able to receive the information that government bodies send out. It’s impossible to save lives if residents simply wait for instructions from authorities.

Throughout Japan, local communities are turning more and more to the use of a “disaster prevention action plan using a timeline” as a means to boost their ability to prevent disasters. These plans specify in advance what actions should be taken by whom in accordance with a timeline prior to a disaster such as a typhoon or heavy rain.

By forecasting the timing of disasters on the basis of phenomena such as cloud movements and river levels, and implementing a plan by carrying out actions such as “setting up evacuation centers one day prior” and “evacuating the elderly six hours prior to an expected disaster,” it’s possible to prevent delays in evacuation.

When formulating a timeline-based action plan, residents, government officials and officials of relevant institutions meet repeatedly to discuss necessary matters. The people involved naturally come to know each other, and the discussions also make the community as a whole familiar with things like which zones are expected to experience flooding and how to understand weather information.

If timeline-based action plans had been in use at the time of the heavy rains in northern Kyushu, some lives probably could have been saved.

In disaster prevention, it’s fundamental for residents to take action spontaneously in a bottom-up fashion. If a community lacks people to take the lead such as by heading a voluntary disaster-prevention organization, then officials of the local government can fill those roles. As seen in Otoyo, Kochi Prefecture, where officials of the town government are assigned to take responsibility for disaster prevention in individual communities and coordinate communications with residents, there will probably be a need in the future for policies whereby government bodies take the lead in raising the awareness of residents with regard to self-help and mutual help.

To improve the ability of communities to prevent disasters, it is important that residents discuss among themselves successful actions taken in previous disasters and, to the extent appropriate to the community, incorporate those measures into how they respond to future disasters. All residents must be aware that they have a role, and the area as a whole must continually scrutinize how it prevents disasters.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Yuya Itoi.

■ Ichiro Matsuo

Deputy chief of the CeMI Research Institute for Disaster Mitigation and Environmental Studies

Matsuo, 62, has studied such subjects as the evacuation behavior of residents stricken by earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions. He serves as a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo. Books he has authored include “Timeline,” which he wrote and edited.

Mayors must not neglect disaster preparations

OSAKA — In October 2004, the city of Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, suffered tremendous damage due to heavy rains resulting from Typhoon No. 23. One person was killed and 46 injured. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, hundreds of households were temporarily isolated, and about 6,000 houses and buildings suffered damage.

The storm hit the Kinki region on Oct. 20. Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., the city government issued evacuation advisories and orders covering about 43,000 residents, or about 90 percent of the city’s population. However, less than 10 percent of the population actually evacuated. A little after 11 p.m. that evening, the banks of the Maruyamagawa river, which runs through the city, collapsed.

I don’t think decisions to issue evacuation advisories and orders were delayed, but composing the text of the advisories and orders took time. City officials used the disaster-prevention radio system to urge residents to evacuate, but the messages failed to convey the urgency of the situation. If we’d succeeded in communicating the danger in a way that was easy to understand, and urged people to evacuate early on, we might’ve been able to reduce the damage. Reflections like these served as a starting point for building up our disaster-prevention system.

After that event, the city produced templates to be used in the future when issuing evacuation advisories or orders, including specific information such as how much the river has risen in the last hour and how much higher the water can rise before it poses a danger.

We’ve contracted with a weather information company to learn about local weather information in detail. Through disaster-prevention drills and other means, the city has repeatedly emphasized to residents the importance of evacuating early. I think the ability of the city as a whole to prevent disasters has improved greatly.

Some municipalities, which suffered due to the heavy rains in 2017 in northern Kyushu, have been criticized for issuing evacuation advisories or orders late. It is bad, of course, to issue such things late. But even issuing them early is meaningless if residents do not actually evacuate. What is important is to review the situation from a variety of viewpoints, such as whether messages from the local governments actually led to people evacuating and whether advance preparations were adequate, and then using what is learned from this to revise the disaster-prevention system.

In April last year, I asked the mayors of 14 municipalities who have experience with flooding or with the Great East Japan Earthquake to join me in publishing a list of 24 brief slogans about what a local leader must do when a disaster strikes. It includes messages like, “After a disaster strikes, the mayor becomes the focus of criticism, so keep this in mind and improve yourself,” and “Success depends on drills and preparations carried out in normal times.” This list, which is based on what we learned from our own failures and past experience, is what a mayor should keep in mind.

It’s certainly not often that a head of a municipal government serving a four-year term will experience a disaster while in office. Although mayors do not receive any systematic training in crisis management, they’re the ones who have to bear all the responsibility.

Mayors who’ve never experienced a disaster will naturally tend to underestimate the danger of natural disasters and be less cautious about being hit by a disaster. Thinking back, I was that way myself. Heads of local governments must not neglect routine drills and preparations.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Yoshiaki Takeuchi.

■ Muneharu Nakagai

Mayor of Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture

Nakagai, 63, graduated from the Faculty of Law at Kyoto University. After working at the Hyogo prefectural government and serving as a member of the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly, he was elected mayor of Toyooka for the first time in July 2001.

Plans should be revised as conditions change

FUKUOKA — As a result of the torrential rains in northern Kyushu, Kyushu University formed a support team to assist the stricken areas in recovering and rebuilding on July 25 last year. About 50 experts in such fields as agriculture and engineering visited the areas and directly took part in activities including formulating reconstruction plans and participation in local meetings.

In previous major disasters, many university researchers just served as academic experts. We felt that by just carrying out such tasks as surveying the area after the disaster or offering their opinions on reconstruction plans drawn up by governments, they often placed themselves on the side of the government, rather than residents.

In areas stricken by the Great East Japan Earthquake, residents and local government have sometimes opposed each other regarding restoration projects such as large seawalls. This has been due to a knowledge gap between the government and residents.

Because residents are not experts, when the government explains the outlines of a restoration project to them and shows them blueprints, they may be unable to understand what’s being described or to visualize how it will actually look. But governments go ahead with the plan in the belief that residents have agreed to it. It’s very unfortunate when a project proceeds this way.

For this reason, our support team made many visits to the areas and, as much as possible, took part when government bodies and residents exchanged opinions. We asked the government questions on behalf of the residents, and we gave our answers as experts to questions that residents asked us. We were able to state our opinions because a university has no stake in the issues.

In the case of a plan for the restoration of one river channel, scholars made a scale model of the river channel, and the residents looked at the model when deciding locations for excavation for the channel. By serving as a bridge between local governments and residents, scholars and researchers can strengthen trust between the two sides. I expect that such areas will gradually take a new shape in the future.

The victims of the heavy rains in northern Kyushu last year are impatient at the fact that although a year has passed since the disaster, and the rainy season has now arrived, there has been no visible progress on the disaster-prevention work. When people are worried about the present moment, it’s hard to think ahead to reconstruction for the future. To have residents look to the future, restoration projects must be carried forward and the people must be made to feel secure.

In any given community, the amount of damage will vary and there will be people whose homes were washed away and therefore cannot return to the community. So we now want to begin working on realizing events, such as reviving local festivals, where the residents can come together with the goal of reconstruction.

As recovery and reconstruction proceed, the needs of residents gradually change. I serve as chairman of the committees for formulating reconstruction plans in both the city of Asakura and the village of Toho in Fukuoka Prefecture. I finalized both of the plans in March. What I particularly emphasized at the time was that the plans ought to be revised in a flexible manner as conditions change. Local governments tend to hate changing their plans, but reconstruction takes a long time, so not changing the reconstruction plan would be unrealistic. And of course residents are not guests, and it’s important that they be actively involved as well.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Muneyuki Matsushita.

■ Yasuhiro Mitani

Kyushu University Professor

Mitani, 52, worked at a construction company prior to taking up his current post in 2013. After the heavy rains in northern Kyushu, he served as chairman of the committees for formulating reconstruction plans for the city of Asakura and the village of Toho, both in Fukuoka Prefecture. He specializes in rock engineering.Speech

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