29 Years after Great Hanshin Earthquake: Horrors of Collapsed Houses, Fires Relived in Noto Quakes

It has been 29 years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that killed 6,434 people. There are many lessons that overlap with those from the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, regarding such aspects as collapsed houses and fires. It is essential to make this time an opportunity to once again examine our earthquake preparedness.

At a memorial ceremony organized by the Kobe municipal government and others, lanterns were used to spell out the word “tomoni” (together). The word expresses a determination to work together toward recovery from the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, according to the organizers.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake prompted the central and local governments to review their crisis management systems, which advanced earthquake-resistant city planning and improved support for those affected by disasters, among other effects.

Since 80% of those who died in the Great Hanshin Earthquake were killed by collapsing houses, the central and local governments have encouraged the seismic reinforcement of buildings. Currently, nearly 90% of all houses meet the earthquake resistance standards introduced in 1981.

It can be said that the Great Hanshin Earthquake has served as the basis for current measures against disasters.

In the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, however, buildings in the cities of Wajima and Suzu in Ishikawa Prefecture, where many houses collapsed, had a seismic reinforcement rate of only 50%. Both cities have aging populations, and not a few people were likely hesitant to renovate or rebuild their houses.

In addition, many buildings that met the earthquake resistance standards were found to be damaged. It is possible that damage accumulated from the swarm earthquakes that struck over the last three years. It is thought that buildings in areas hit by strong temblors in the past had their strength diminished.

The central and local governments need to expand subsidies and other programs to ensure that houses nationwide undergo even more rigorous seismic diagnoses, and promote rebuilding and seismic reinforcement.

The fires that broke out in Wajima again showed us the danger of areas with dense wooden housing. Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the central government has publicized areas that are particularly at risk of fire spread and other threats and has pushed for eliminating the problem. However, the site of the fires in Wajima was not included in such areas designated by the central government.

There are areas of dense wooden housing throughout Japan that are at risk of fire, but efforts by local governments to eliminate the risk have not made headway.

Local governments should reexamine these areas and work to remove vacant houses, among other efforts. It will also be important to secure open spaces to serve as firebreaks, such as parks and roads.

The shift in the active fault that caused the Noto Peninsula Earthquake was massive. The regional disaster prevention plan drawn up by the Ishikawa prefectural government did not anticipate this level of damage, and stockpiles of food and water were quickly depleted.

Earthquakes can strike anywhere at any time. What will we do if, as in the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, roads are cut off and the transport of supplies is blocked or villages become isolated? It is imperative to always assume the worst and be prepared.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 17, 2024)