Disaster preparedness: Lessons from Yokohama | Sunday Observer

Disaster preparedness: Lessons from Yokohama

The Disaster Learning Center encourages visitors to have firsthand experience of disasters
The Disaster Learning Center encourages visitors to have firsthand experience of disasters

The ground moved slightly, the first indications of an earthquake. Suddenly, the movements became violent, the earth shaking harder. It was pitch-dark and the noise was overwhelming. I could hear people around me screaming, things falling off shelves and breaking.

I couldn’t run and was desperately holding onto a thick steel bar in front of me. It was scary. The shaking continued for several minutes; but it felt like a long time.

Once the shaking stopped we came out of the ‘earthquake stimulator’ laughing - out of shock, not amusement.

That was the initial feeling of a group of Asian journalists who were able to experience what an earthquake was like, when they toured the Yokohama Disaster Risk Reduction Learning Center recently.

Apart from collapsing buildings, we also saw fires breaking out and spreading uncontrolled; part of the tour includes learning how to use a fire extinguisher. One room simulated a house hit by a landslide after torrential rains, with a fire also breaking out – a concern in Yokohama, which is a 70 percent hilly area.

The Disaster Learning Center encourages visitors to have firsthand experience of disasters - so that everyone learns something of rescue methods.

People are also warned about the risks of sinkholes, flooding in the subway as well as liquefaction. Disaster preparedness also covers aftershocks and tackles ways of dealing with so-called tertiary damage: unemployment, disruption of supplies and basic services, and the need for temporary shelters. During our visit to the center in this port city, we saw Japanese school children on a field trip – learning disaster preparedness techniques. It was a bright, sunny day in Yokohama city with residents enjoying the ‘Golden Week’ holiday in Japan, from April 29 to May 5.

An official of the Emergency Management Office of Yokohama’s General Affairs Bureau explained to us the city’s disaster preparedness and response blueprint, based on lessons from the 2011 Tohoku Quake that killed at least 19,335 people, injured 6,219 others and either damaged or destroyed nearly 400,000 homes.

Four scenarios of quakes

Using four scenarios of quakes with magnitudes ranging from 7.3 to ‘the inconceivable’ 9.0 striking at three different hours of the day yielded projected casualty and injury counts, as well as estimated infrastructure damage. These projections aided disaster planners in drawing up preparedness, evacuation, public information and logistics blueprints, including how to cope with hundreds of thousands of stranded commuters and fostering a community-based mutual assistance framework since “the municipal government will also sustain damage in a disaster and, thus, there are limits to its ability to respond alone.” The Disaster Risk Reduction Learning Center is run by Yokohama’s Fire Prevention Bureau, so a mini fire truck welcomes visitors at the main entrance. The truck is just large enough to fit two kids in front, but it’s not a toy.

While the city wants to make disaster preparedness fun, Japan has always taken seriously the threat posed by natural disasters. Japan is frequently devastated by typhoons that spawn killer landslides and floods.

On the other hand, Japan is possibly the most prepared country for natural catastrophes. Still, the Japanese decided to further ramp up preparedness after the apocalyptic Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, which triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The triple disaster left 19,335 people dead and 2,600 missing, and turned villages into virtual ghost towns.

After the Magnitude 9.0 quake Yokohama decided to drastically revise its disaster preparedness plans, an official said.

Disaster as training

The official who took us around the centre said the Japanese have realized the huge difference between being prepared and not being prepared when a natural disaster suddenly occurs. “Floods, earth slips or earthquakes can occur at anytime; just a minor oversight can start a fire; Typhoons and tornadoes destroy life and property within seconds.

“At the Yokohama Disaster Risk Reduction Learning Centre, people can learn and experience all kinds of things about natural disasters before they happen and be prepared to calmly take action should one occurs.”

The projection is that a Magnitude 8 earthquake in the city could leave 3,260 people dead, more than half from fires; so homes and buildings are being designed to be fire-resilient, the officials said.

There are signs in four languages (Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean) all over the city, in both public areas and private facilities, about what to do and where to seek help in case of a strong earthquake or tsunami. There are contingency plans in place even for assisting people trying to get home by walking along damaged streets. About 8,600 street posts display sea levels using reflective material. There are evacuation information boards, and a smart phone app to help people search for missing persons.

Yokohama has a soil liquefaction map. With the city having many landfills, massive liquefaction is expected. Reclaimed areas are also expected to be inundated with floods up to 4.9 meters or 16 feet high.

Preparedness can minimize damage

Not even Japan was prepared for the Tohoku Earthquake. But now we can learn many lessons from Japanese preparedness and mitigation efforts.

Disaster resilience is also apparent with other facilities in this country. The Kawai Purification Plant, one of three that supplies clean water to the city, has also been built to withstand earthquakes up to Magnitude 7. Last year, 120,000 people visited the centre and now get about 400 visitors daily. Even if a visit to the centre is not compulsory for school children, 50 of the city’s 340 public schools sent their students to the centre in 2016. Parents also visit with their children.

There are similar centers in the capital Tokyo, two in Kanagawa Prefecture plus smaller facilities across the country. Yokohama officials remind people that a disaster can cripple even the government, so residents are encouraged to learn how to protect themselves. Guidelines have been drawn up on individual preparedness, including the installation of ‘earthquake breakers’ at home, having portable toilets, and keeping stocks of food and drinks good for at least three days.

There are ‘group disaster drills’ for earthquakes, floods and fires, and for assisting the elderly and people with disabilities. No one can ever be fully prepared for any of those disasters, but a high level of preparedness can minimize damage. And people can increase their chances of survival; this is the key message we received at this disaster learning centre.

Japan’s support for Sri Lanka

When Sri Lanka experienced some of the most dangerous natural disasters in the recent past, the Japanese were keen to support with disaster management expertise and were quick to send a Disaster Relief Expert Team following the recent floods in the Sabaragamuwa and the Southern provinces in particular.

The team, at the end of their research, suggested that Sri Lanka should look at establishing more accurate early warning systems on natural disasters and concluded that the island’s infrastructure is not strong enough to withstand a major rainfall.

The team handed over a report with their findings and suggestions to Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa and emphasized on the need for investing in future disaster mitigation by allocating funds through the national budget.

This is exactly what a disaster-prone country, Japan, has done in the past and is still doing - while heeding the principle of ‘practice is better than preaching’.

Japanese experts also said that Sri Lanka now has an opportunity to build a safer and more resilient country based on the ‘Build Back Better’ concept to prevent the same disasters happening in the same place every year.

Pix: Ayun Sundarie