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As I See It: Massive Kumamoto quakes caught everyone unprepared, but shouldn't have

The body of Kazumi Takada is recovered from her home, in Minamiaso, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 16, 2016. (Mainichi)

KUMAMOTO -- On the night of April 14, and then again in the early morning of April 16, massive earthquakes hitting the top of the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale struck Kumamoto Prefecture. The magnitude-6.5 quake on the 14th collapsed many homes in the area of the town of Mashiki near the quake hypocenter, burying a number of people alive under rubble.

However, what residents really needed to be prepared for was the April 16 earthquake, which was thought at first to be an aftershock. It was later understood that it was this second tremor, reaching an unexpected magnitude of 7.3, that was the main shock. Catching prefectural residents off guard, it collapsed buildings and killed and injured many. For the survivors, it left lasting psychological wounds.

I myself was at home when the April 16 quake struck. I'd been covering the April 14 quake, and was taking a nap on my living room sofa. When the April 14 quake hit, all that had happened in my own home was some documents fell from their shelves. But when the tremor on the 16th came, it knocked over many pieces of furniture. I heard my pregnant wife scream, and I, shaken and confused, wondered, "Why is this aftershock so big?"

I headed by car toward the Aso area where, between powerful tremors, I had heard that there was quake damage. On the way I saw lines of people in the road who had fled their houses, as well as people sitting in parks and parking lots. As time passed, the number of people grew. It was a sight that I hadn't encountered after the April 14 quake. A 67-year-old woman in a park said to me, "I was in my home, when there was shaking twice as severe as on April 14, and it scared me."

National Route 57 to Aso was blocked by cracks that had opened up in the earth, and that day I was unable to make it to the badly damaged Kawayo district in the village of Minamiaso.

The two earthquakes directly claimed 49 lives, 40 of them on April 16 or later. Fifteen of these deaths were in the village of Minamiaso. On the night of April 14, 62-year-old village resident Kazumi Takada took refuge at her mother's house, a firmly-built structure nearby her own home. Her mother, 80-year-old Terumi Go, recommended that Takada continue staying there on the night of April 15, but Takada, saying the aftershocks had died down, chose to return to her house. She was found dead in the ruins of her home, which collapsed in the April 16 main shock.

"I never imagined this would happen," says Go, who regrets not stopping Takada from leaving.

As of April 29, around 38,000 people in Kumamoto Prefecture were still living as earthquake evacuees. One 50-year-old woman in the city of Kumamoto still living in her car though her house was not heavily damaged, said, "I can't sleep in my house because of fear from the main shock. When the TV says to prepare for a major tremor, I can't relax."

As I interviewed many quake survivors, I could sense how everyone believed that the tremors would gradually weaken after the first big one on April 14, and the unexpected development of a yet larger quake worsened the damage.

As of noon on April 28, there had been 1,006 earthquakes of a 1 or higher on the Japanese scale since the series of quakes started. Since both of the quakes measuring up to a 7 on the Japanese scale occurred at night, I, like others, am sensitive to the slightest vibration once the sun begins to set. I cannot shake the feeling that something might happen again.

On April 15, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) announced there was a 20 percent chance of an aftershock of a lower-6 or more on the intensity scale occurring within the next three days. The next day, though, the agency took back that prediction, saying "our past experience does not fit with this case."

Hiroyuki Goto, associate professor of earthquake engineering at Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute, says, "Unlike a weather forecast for rain, I think it would be hard for many citizens to correctly understand and take anti-disaster measures when they are told there is a 20 percent chance of (a large) aftershock."

Although I do not know how much the JMA's first aftershock prediction affected the people of Kumamoto, when I heard "20 percent" I took it to mean that the probability was low. I think the national government should raise public awareness on a regular basis and in a more careful manner, so everyone can take appropriate action.

The Kumamoto Prefectural Government was also unprepared. The prefectural authorities and the Kumamoto Municipal Government included a possible magnitude-7 class earthquake originating in the Futagawa and Hinagu fault zones scenario -- as the recent large quakes did -- in a 2015 disaster-prevention plan, as there was a major quake in 1889 that left 20 people dead in the prefecture.

However, on April 25 Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima admitted that this disaster plan scenario "was an on-paper simulation. It would have been best if we had thought of how to respond in the event the earthquake actually happened, but the plan did not go that far. We didn't have the power (to plan as we should have)." He acknowledged that the prefecture had not had enough emergency supplies on hand, leading to a temporary shortage of food and other essentials.

Taiji Mazda, a researcher of earthquake engineering and head of Kumamoto University's Implementation Research and Education System Center for Reducing Disaster Risk, noted, "The people of (Mashiki), who knew they were above an active fault line, were surprised anyway. I think they did not have a true understanding of the terror of earthquakes. We need to take measures based on what happened this time."

Japan has over 2,000 fault lines, and experiences earthquakes across many regions. I believe another situation like these latest quakes -- situations that are impossible to predict based on past experience -- is entirely possible. It is because of my experience being terrified by the Kumamoto Earthquake that I want to share what happened with others.

Using the terror of this disaster as a lesson, and with the awareness that the unexpected could strike at any time, I hope that government organs around the nation, as well as common citizens, will debate anew how to prepare for natural disasters. (By Kenji Noro, Kumamoto Bureau)

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