5 years after Kumamoto Earthquake, learn lessons and pass on memories

It is hoped that the memories of a pair of powerful earthquakes that registered the maximum reading of 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale will be passed on to the next generation, becoming valuable lessons.

Five years have passed since the Kumamoto Earthquake disaster occurred. A total of 276 people lost their lives. Fifty of them were killed directly by the pair of earthquakes, while 221 others died from quake-related causes, and five died due to a secondary disaster caused by heavy rain. Nearly 200,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged, and transportation networks were cut off in many places.

In urban areas, the traces left by the earthquakes have become less apparent, and national roads and JR lines in Kumamoto Prefecture have been fully restored. Restoration work on the main tower of Kumamoto Castle has been completed, with the tower scheduled to open to the public this month. This appears to be a positive sign for the disaster-stricken areas.

Most residents in temporary housing have already moved out. People affected by the earthquakes have started their new lives by relocating to public housing for disaster victims or their own rebuilt houses.

However, they have not necessarily recovered their lives as they were before the disaster. More than half of the households in public housing for disaster victims are those of elderly people. Many of the elderly residents are said to be in need of assistance due to illness, living alone or other reasons. Local governments need to keep an eye on them over an extended period, lest they become isolated.

After the Kumamoto Earthquake, the high number of quake-related deaths was noticeable. The deaths were caused mainly by the worsening of chronic illnesses due to the stress of evacuee life. The number of such quake-related deaths is more than four times that of deaths caused directly by the earthquakes, accounting for 80% of the total death toll.

According to an analysis by the Kumamoto prefectural government on quake-related deaths in the prefecture, 80% of such deaths came within three months of the disaster, and 80% of the people who died from quake-related causes were in their 70s or older. In the survey, the physical and mental burdens of evacuee life were seen as contributing factors in nearly 40% of the deaths. This indicates the importance of improving the evacuation environment in the early stages after a disaster occurs.

The Cabinet Office said it will soon release a collection of case studies of deaths related to disasters such as the Kumamoto Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake. It is hoped that such data can be used to devise future measures to prevent people who survive a disaster from losing their life in its aftermath.

It has been posited that one of the main reasons for deaths related to the Kumamoto Earthquake was people spending their nights in cars. If people stay in a car for a long period of time, blood clots can easily form, increasing the risk of so-called economy class syndrome. Moreover, local governments are unable to locate people staying in cars, making it difficult for them to deliver relief information and supplies.

If such a major disaster occurs amid the ongoing pandemic, more people are likely to choose to stay in their cars to prevent infections. Local governments should make arrangements such as having disaster victims report their evacuation locations.

The fading of memories is a concern among people in the affected areas. According to a survey conducted last December by the Kumamoto city government, a large number of respondents said that they felt they were tending to forget the lessons of the disaster.

The government’s Earthquake Research Committee has released national seismic hazard maps. For more than 60% of prefectural capitals, the maps show increased probabilities of earthquakes with an intensity of at least lower 6 within 30 years. It should be remembered that such earthquakes could occur anywhere at any time.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 15, 2021.