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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Better but not perfect

December 8, 2012



Lessons of 2011 led to better evacuations this time






The magnitude-7.3 earthquake and tsunami warning on Dec. 7 were a chilling echo of the events of March 2011, but lessons learned back then resulted in a more efficient evacuation of residents to higher ground.

A broad stretch of eastern Japan experienced tremors measuring lower-5 on the Japanese scale of 7. Yet there were only 11 reported injuries, many sustained when evacuees fell as they fled.

The earthquake struck at 5:18 p.m. off the Sanriku coast of northeastern Japan. A tsunami warning for Miyagi Prefecture sounded at 5:22 p.m., while four other prefectures received tsunami advisories. In total, about 26,000 people moved to high ground or to designated evacuation centers.

At 7:20 p.m., the tsunami warning and advisories were canceled.

Last year's quake and tsunami devastated large sections of the Pacific coast of Honshu. In many of those areas, residents began evacuating within minutes of the latest quake.

"With people evacuating even before the tsunami warning was issued, a much faster evacuation than last year was made possible," said an official with the fire department for Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku in Miyagi Prefecture.

One reason for the quick evacuation was that local governments had implemented changes in disaster management procedures.

For example, in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the municipal government promptly e-mailed tsunami advisories to residents across the city.

The area-wide text messaging program was implemented in July. The Dec. 7 event was only the second time it had been used to carry a tsunami advisory, with the first being in August.

In Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, an evacuation advisory was issued for all residents in areas damaged by last year's tsunami. At the time of last year's disaster, the policy had been to urge evacuations only among people on the coast itself. Officials subsequently expanded the advisory zone to include inland areas devastated in 2011.

Meanwhile, a small change in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, was aimed at preventing a repeat of a local tragedy there: Ten local volunteer firefighters died in the district last year because they were still calling on residents when the wall of water struck. On Dec. 7, the municipal government urged firefighters to leave affected areas 10 minutes before the time the tsunami was forecast to hit.

Companies in coastal regions also acted swiftly to safeguard their workers.

A plant operated by Nippon Paper Industries Co. in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was left devastated after last year's disasters. It is now repaired and operating again. When the tsunami warning sounded on Dec. 7, production lines halted and all workers evacuated to higher ground nearby.

"After last year's disasters, we compiled a manual that said, 'If a warning is issued, just flee.' That helped this time," said a spokesperson for Nippon Paper Group Inc.

Convenience store chain FamilyMart Co. instructed workers at about 40 outlets along the Pacific coast to evacuate, shutting the stores temporarily. Fellow operator Lawson Inc. closed 46 of its outlets, too.

But not everything went smoothly on Dec. 7.

On Dec. 3, the Kamaishi municipal government in Iwate Prefecture installed a new emergency radio system to broadcast advisories to streets and homes in the neighborhood. The new system replaced one destroyed in last year's disaster, and when tested, the installation seemed to work.

But on Dec. 7, the system's automated evacuation message failed to activate. Municipal government workers had to run up to the broadcasting booth on the fourth floor of the government building to broadcast the evacuation advisory themselves. And in some areas the messages were not heard because equipment was still being replaced.

In Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, a siren for the tsunami warning did not operate properly.

And because the Dec. 7 quake struck at a time when many commuters were returning home from work, roads quickly became blocked with cars. One individual in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, tweeted about 50 minutes after the quake struck that traffic jams had made evacuation difficult.

Last time, many cars were swept away. This time, many local police departments formulated plans to have officers direct traffic.

The overlap of the evacuation with the evening rush hour led to major traffic jams in a number of cities.

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