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Editorial: Securing housing for evacuees urgent in Kumamoto quake recovery

One month has passed since the April 14 Kumamoto Earthquake foreshock that started a string of strong temblors that caused massive damage in the prefecture and surrounding areas. Both the foreshock and the April 16 principle quake registered 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale in some areas, followed by more widespread aftershocks. More than 1,400 tremors measuring at least 1 on the Japanese intensity scale have jolted the area, and there are no signs that the seismic activity in the region will end anytime soon.

More than 10,000 people are still taking shelter at public facilities such as community centers and schools. Numerous people have been living in their vehicles after fleeing their homes for fear of aftershocks, although the authorities don't exactly know how many. The exhaustion felt by evacuees must be worse than one who has never faced such a situation can imagine.

It is essential to take measures to support evacuees' daily lives to prevent illnesses triggered or made worse by fatigue. At the most basic level, authorities should move swiftly to secure housing for all evacuees.

There are still about 240 evacuation shelters operating in Kumamoto Prefecture. Local municipalities are integrating their shelters as schools accommodating evacuees have resumed classes. However, quite a few evacuees have been forced to move to evacuation shelters farther away from their homes, and are worried that the communities formed at their shelters could be broken up.

Many shelters, where evacuees have worked out rules governing their daily lives, have functioned as communities. Evacuation shelter leaders have met regularly to discuss how to improve living conditions. The duration of evacuation could be prolonged. Local municipalities should place priority on maintaining communities at evacuation shelters where residents of the same neighborhoods have been living.

Meanwhile, partitions that protect the privacy of evacuees have been set up at only a handful of shelters.

According to a Mainichi Shimbun survey of evacuees, approximately 40 percent say their health has deteriorated. Measures should be taken to prevent any more deaths linked to the disaster. Countermeasures against heatstroke and food poisoning will also pose a challenge as temperatures rise with the approach of summer.

Some children are afraid of the night. It is necessary to provide mental health care to such children and other evacuees. Social workers and other experts should be dispatched to provide sufficient assistance to alleviate evacuees' psychological stress.

There are a particularly large number of evacuees taking shelter in their cars amid the continued occurrence of aftershocks. Some of these people have suffered so-called economy-class syndrome, or deep vein thrombosis, in which blood clots develop due to prolonged inactivity.

Even the central government, which has said it is undesirable for evacuees to stay overnight in their cars, has begun considering realistic measures to address the situation. Even though the number of those staying overnight in their cars is said to be dropping, it is necessary for the central and local governments to provide assistance to evacuees to prevent their health from deteriorating.

Authorities must rush to secure temporary housing for evacuees whose homes sustained damage in the disaster. Those whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged will be eligible to live in temporary housing units. However, it is difficult to estimate how many such housing units are needed, primarily because little progress has been made on surveys and procedures necessary for municipal governments to base their issuance of disaster victim certificates.

According to the prefectural government, some 75,000 homes were damaged in the quake disaster, including those that sustained partial damage.

Local municipalities affected by the quakes have conducted emergency assessments of damage to homes in a bid to prevent secondary disasters, and concluded that about 10,000 structures could collapse if hit by aftershocks. Local bodies should step up efforts to issue victim certificates as soon as possible to the residents of such homes.

However, the construction of temporary housing units will be delayed if local bodies wait until surveys for the issuance of the certificates are completed. The prefectural government should take the initiative in pushing along the construction of temporary housing.

It is also important for local bodies to lease empty houses and apartments and lend them to evacuees free of charge as temporary housing. In doing so, municipalities should respond flexibly to evacuees' need for housing by allowing them to move temporarily into such housing even before their victim certificates are issued.

There are evacuees who say they will not enter temporary housing units depending on their location. Some people have proposed that trailer homes, like those used in the United States and other countries in case of massive disasters, be installed in large lots as temporary housing.

Municipalities and communities hit by the disaster have varying circumstances. The authorities should understand evacuees' diverse needs when providing temporary housing.

Unlike the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, in which entire neighborhoods were flooded or wiped out by tsunami waves, the degree of damage the Kumamoto Earthquake caused to homes has been varied even within the same area. Local governments concerned should use neighborhood associations to establish a system that allows communities to cooperate closely on local restoration work.

The national government has approved an approximately 780 billion yen supplementary budget draft to finance such projects as infrastructure rebuilding and the construction of temporary housing. Including money drawn from reserve funds, the central government will set aside a total of over 1 trillion yen for disaster recovery efforts.

Moreover, the central government has designated the Kumamoto Earthquake an "extraordinary disaster," opening the way for the state to rebuild the collapsed Aso Ohashi bridge and other structures on behalf of local governments. The government must respect local communities' wishes when undertaking such restoration projects.

The Kumamoto Prefectural Government has launched a panel of experts on the restoration of disaster areas. Emergency recommendations issued by panel chairman Makoto Iokibe call for "creative restoration," and urge the national government to allocate the same levels of funds as those in the Great East Japan Earthquake for the restoration of disaster areas in Kumamoto and its surrounding regions.

The national government must take care to listen to requests from affected local bodies since infrastructure building is a heavy burden on local bodies even if they are required to pay only a small portion of the expenses.

More than 40,000 volunteers have visited Kumamoto Prefecture to help with relief and restoration work. However, the number of volunteers on-site has been declining. Although a month has passed since the outbreak of the disaster, restoration efforts have just gotten under way. Each and every member of the public should extend long-term assistance to the disaster-hit areas.

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