Japan Prefs Mull Fleeing Tsunami by Car, Rather Than on Foot

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Lines of vehicles are seen in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, after a strong earthquake was observed off the prefecture in November 2016.

To deal with the effects of the largest earthquake and tsunami ever to hit Japan, it is necessary to strengthen evacuation responses, while also mitigating damage with improvements in hardware.

However, following a new estimate that a tsunami could arrive quickly and inundate large areas, cars are being newly touted as the most effective way to escape looming danger.

In the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many people were caught in traffic jams while fleeing by car and were swept away by the tsunami, leading many municipalities to adopt the principle of evacuating on foot.

But following publication of the new estimate, Miyagi Prefecture last year reviewed its tsunami guidelines and asked residents of its towns and cities to consider evacuating by car. Iwate Prefecture has also specified in its disaster mitigation plan that evacuation methods should be “made flexibly in accordance with local conditions.”

Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture, which has flat land running along the coast, has installed 10 “evacuation routes” and conducted disaster drills using cars. In October, the town designated two emergency evacuation sites that can accept cars. It also plans to specify area-to-area escape routes for cars in its disaster prevention plan set to be revised in the new fiscal year.

“Working under these new assumptions, we’ll be required to evacuate more quickly,” a town official in charge said. “We want to ensure that congestion-free evacuation is possible.”

 Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture will conduct a demonstration experiment in March before discussing the use of cars for evacuation in specific areas. Otsuchi in the same prefecture has decided to expand the scope of people eligible for vehicular evacuation — which previously was limited to particularly vulnerable people — to all town residents, and to designate a riverside road as an upstream one-way route, in addition to providing car evacuation sites.

Traffic-jam risks

However, some people who previously evacuated by car have voiced concerns.

Otsuchi assembly member Mieko Sawayama, 66, fled the 2011 tsunami by car with her family of five, including her blind father-in-law. The family became stuck amid traffic jams and abandoned cars and were swept away. All survived, but other relatives who also fled by car were killed. “It’s important to let people know that there are risks involved with evacuating by car, too,” Sawayama said.

Iwate University Prof. Masaaki Minami, who specializes in urban planning, said: “It’s difficult for the government to make rules and restrict them. There’s no other way but for residents to discuss possible situations in advance, create evacuation responses tailored to each community and for such thinking to become entrenched.”

Iwate Prefecture will spend about ¥120 million to subsidize evacuation drills and study sessions in its quake and tsunami countermeasure project to be launched in the new fiscal year.

Gov. Takuya Tasso said, “We’ll support various initiatives [on the planning and ideas side] and work in cooperation with municipalities with the aim to keep the number of victims to zero.”