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Supplies failing to reach Kumamoto quake survivors due to lack of organization

As Kumamoto Prefecture and its surrounding regions face the sixth day since a powerful earthquake struck on April 14, many residents are still waiting for water, food and basic necessities to reach them. Why have the many supplies that have been donated failed to reach the evacuees? The answer lies in insufficient preparedness of both the Kumamoto prefectural and municipal governments to receive and distribute supplies.

The Kumamoto Prefectural Government had initially planned to use a prefecture-owned facility in the hard-hit town of Mashiki as a warehouse where donated supplies and goods brought by private companies -- with which it had signed commodity procurement agreements -- would be stored and allocated to local municipalities. The facility, however, was partially damaged by the earthquake, so the prefectural government decided to switch its warehouse to the Kumamoto Prefectural College of Technology in the nearby town of Kikuyo. However, the school asked that heavy supplies not be brought to the school, so the prefectural government once again switched its warehouse to the insufficiently sized lobby of the prefectural government building. These switches ended up wasting precious time.

The prefectural government had forged commodity procurement contracts with 10 private companies in preparation for a disaster, but had not signed any agreements regarding storage of these commodities. Neither had the prefectural government run related simulations.

"We must face this fact as a lesson for the future," one official said.

Meanwhile, the government of the city of Kumamoto, which likewise had prearranged deals with private companies to procure and transport supplies, initially stored the supplies at an athletic facility in the city, where city staffers have been allocating goods to five districts within the city and distributing them to evacuation centers. However, there were not enough staffers to deal with the volume of supplies that had to be stored, sorted, and distributed.

Around 12 a.m. on April 18, at least 10 trucks carrying water reached the athletic facility. However, with only 10 city staff on hand to unload the trucks, the process took until morning. The Kumamoto Municipal Government is now considering hiring a private company to carry out such work.

Yoshio Ozeki, a former counsellor to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), and current director general of the Japan Coast Guard's Maritime Traffic Department, worked on distribution to disaster-hit areas such as Iwate and Miyagi prefectures for about three months after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

"Even when the supplies arrived, there weren't enough places to keep them, and even when we did find places, for a while it was difficult to get a grasp on what was stored where," Ozeki recalls.

According to the ministry, it wasn't until about six months after the 2011 triple disasters broke out that a system in which logistics companies would deliver supplies to evacuation centers and other locations was established. Based on this experience, the ministry called for public-private partnership in times of disaster, urging prefectural governments to sign commodity transport and storage agreements with the private sector.

However, not many private companies are willing to offer up their warehouse space for relief supplies. According to MLIT, all 47 prefectural governments have reached commodity transport agreements with private companies, but only 70 percent of those prefectures have signed storage contracts. The Kumamoto Prefectural Government was one that didn't have a storage agreement.

"Because local administrative bodies do not have the equipment or know-how (on transport and storage of supplies), it's important for them to commission industry bodies such as the Japan Trucking Association and the Japan Warehousing Association to carry out supply transport operations from the very beginning," says Ryutsu Keizai University professor Yuji Yano, who has called on the government to build a system of cooperation between the public and private sectors for transport of supplies.

"If it's difficult for individual municipalities to reach such accords with private companies, then the national government should step in to help such agreements come to fruition, or set up supply distribution centers at times of disaster," Yano said.

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