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Quake shelter at university closed, but evacuees fear returning home

Toshiko Shimoda, 83, left, waits next to her husband Fukumi, 84, for her daughter to arrive, at an evacuation shelter at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto, in Kumamoto on April 18, 2016. (Mainichi)

KUMAMOTO -- As government bodies, businesses and universities move to restart operations that were halted by a magnitude-7.3 earthquake on April 16, residents at one university shelter are being driven out.

As of the morning of April 18, around 500 people affected by the earthquake were staying at a shelter set up at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto in Kumamoto's Higashi Ward. The institution, however, decided to close its shelter at noon the same day.

The city government specifies the university as a place for temporary evacuation, not as one for longer-term stays, and the school says that it has no option but to close the shelter to prepare for the resumption of classes. Still, the closing of the shelter a mere two days after the deadly quake has left many evacuees in the lurch.

In 2013, the city government entered into an agreement with the university to allow the institution to be used as an emergency evacuation shelter. The Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures allows some temporary evacuation shelters to be converted into longer-term ones, but the city does not define the school as one of these convertible shelters.

The university has been offering its gymnasium, lobby and other areas for use by evacuees since a powerful earthquake struck on the night of April 14, and it decided to put its classes on hold through April 19. At first there were around 300 evacuees, such as students and local residents, but after the quake of early April 16, the number temporarily grew to over 500.

The shelter was managed by students, who distributed food and patrolled rooms set up to accommodate evacuees, including the elderly and the disabled. The school decided, however, to close the shelter to prepare to resume classes, and also because shelter management put a heavy burden on its students.

Noriko Niki, head of the university's secretariat, says, "There are limits to how much a university by itself can do to manage an evacuation shelter. We ask for people's understanding of our situation."

A 70-year-old housewife who lives nearby and evacuated to the shelter with her husband says, "The inside of my house is a shambles because of the earthquake. I have nowhere to go, so what am I supposed to do?"

Another housewife, 55, says, "I heard that the nearby evacuation shelters are all full. I wish they would give us information about where to go."

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