Disaster drills transformed after March 11 earthquake

September 01, 2011

With a new sense of urgency, the central and local governments started holding upgraded and expanded disaster drills around Japan. But in the areas that prompted such alarm, local leaders and residents were too busy trying to rebuild from the March 11 disaster to prepare for the next one.

"A disaster is happening right here at the moment," said a town official near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Japan holds Disaster Prevention Week usually from Aug. 30-Sept. 5 to coincide with the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Major drills were conducted nationwide on Aug. 28, drawing upon lessons learned from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

For the first time, members of the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi joined drills by the Yokohama city government based on a scenario of an earthquake with an intensity of 7 hitting the area. About 3,500 people, including residents, participated at the site of the U.S. Naval Support Facility Kamiseya in Yokohama's Seya Ward.

Eric Gardner, commanding officer of NAF Atsugi, said he had never joined such a large-scale drill, adding that he wanted to help local people in times of disasters.

During the drill, a U.S. military helicopter flew relief supplies to residents, and a fire-fighting force from the base worked with the city's fire department.

"Transport by the U.S. forces is a great help," said an official of the city's risk management division.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, where the long-predicted Tokai Earthquake is expected to strike the hardest, four municipal governments, including Makinohara, carried out comprehensive drills on Aug. 28 involving about 50,000 people.

Until last year, disaster drills in the prefecture were conducted on the assumption that a rough prediction for the Tokai Earthquake was possible. But this year for the first time, the drill assumed an unexpected jolt from an earthquake.

Among the main drill activities in the prefecture was evacuating people from the beaches following a tsunami warning. As soon as the siren wailed, qualified lifeguards on Sagara Sun Beach in Makinohara instructed 130 surfers and others swimming in the sea to get out of the water and move to higher ground.

In Kawanehoncho, a town surrounded by mountains in Shizuoka Prefecture, the drill for the first time included the scenario of all routes to other towns being cut off. Ten junior high school students gathered on playgrounds at elementary and junior high schools and wrote "SOS," "mofu (blanket)" and "mizu (water)" on the ground in huge letters using lime so that rescue workers in a helicopter hovering overhead could read them.

In Wakayama Prefecture, an area with a long coastline, fears remain that three major earthquakes--the Tokai Earthquake, the Tonankai Earthquake and the Nankai Earthquake--could occur simultaneously.

In such a scenario, residents at the southern tip of the prefecture are expected to have only an estimated six minutes to flee before tsunami waves hit shore.

The prefectural government will send life jackets to schools and other facilities in the southern part of the prefecture next spring.

The first rescue drill in the prefecture by the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard is scheduled for Sept. 4. A joint team of rescuers from the MSDF and coast guard will deploy helicopters and ships to retrieve eight people wearing life jackets from the water.

In Iwate Prefecture, one of the hardest-hit prefectures in the March 11 earthquake, the prefectural government initially planned to carry out disaster drills in cooperation with the Kamaishi city government and the SDF on Sept. 3. But it canceled the plan because of the lingering effects of the real disaster.

Instead, the prefecture will conduct communication drills with municipal governments using satellite phones on Sept. 1.

Shortly after the March 11 disaster, fixed-line and cellphone networks were down, leaving satellite phones as one of the few reliable forms of communication. But only 11 of the 34 municipalities in the prefecture had satellite phone systems in place, according to a July survey by the prefectural government.

Only four of 12 coastal municipalities swamped by the tsunami had the systems available.

Iwate Prefecture plans to urge all local governments in the prefecture to have satellite phones available for use in emergencies. Thirty municipalities will participate in the project.

In Miyagi Prefecture, also severely damaged by the quake and tsunami, the prefectural government canceled the emergency drills planned with Ishinomaki city's government.

"We are giving top priority to rebuilding efforts," a prefectural government official said.

Of 35 municipalities in the prefecture, only three towns in late July said they planned to conduct emergency drills on their own.

In Fukushima Prefecture, most towns could not afford to perform the disaster drills.

One town official said, "Residents have already been evacuated."

In 13 prefectures that host nuclear power plants, the content of the disaster drills is being reviewed. The current drills are based on a scenario of operational troubles or malfunctioning equipment; they do not assume a combined impact of natural disasters and mechanical problems at the nuclear plants.

The central government is still discussing how to determine projected damage and the range of affected areas by major earthquakes.

"We cannot formulate a solid disaster prevention plan" without those projections, a Shizuoka prefectural government official said.

Ten of the 13 prefectures either remain undecided on disaster drills or have canceled them, including Shizuoka, Hokkaido, Niigata and Fukui.

The remaining three prefectures--Ehime, Saga and Kagoshima--plan to hold disaster drills on their own by the end of this fiscal year by trying to expand the evacuation areas.

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Evacuation stairs were built at Hosoe elementary school in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture, as a safeguard against a possible tsunami triggered by the long-expected Tokai Earthquake. Earthquake drills were conducted at the school on Aug. 28. (Hiroyuki Kamisawa)

Evacuation stairs were built at Hosoe elementary school in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture, as a safeguard against a possible tsunami triggered by the long-expected Tokai Earthquake. Earthquake drills were conducted at the school on Aug. 28. (Hiroyuki Kamisawa)

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  • Evacuation stairs were built at Hosoe elementary school in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture, as a safeguard against a possible tsunami triggered by the long-expected Tokai Earthquake. Earthquake drills were conducted at the school on Aug. 28. (Hiroyuki Kamisawa)

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