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Editorial: Making local gov't buildings, hospitals quake-resistant is an urgent task

Many municipal government buildings, hospitals and other key structures that were supposed to serve as disaster response centers were damaged in the mid-April Kumamoto Earthquake, adversely affecting the response to the disaster.

The fourth-floor ceiling of the five-story Uto Municipal Government headquarters collapsed following the April 16 main temblor. The municipal government headquarters buildings in five cities and towns, including Yatsushiro and Mashiki, became unusable in the disaster.

Hospitals also sustained serious damage, endangering the lives of some of their patients. More than 40 medical institutions became temporarily unable to provide regular service. One of them, the Kumamoto City Hospital -- the designated local hub medical institution for responses to disasters -- ceased to function when cracks were found in the walls and other parts of the complex after the main temblor. About 200 inpatients at the institution were ferried to other hospitals by helicopter or ambulance.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry annually surveys the progress of quake-resistance measures at public facilities, which must serve as disaster response centers. These facilities include police and fire stations, hospitals and local government offices, as well as schools and gymnasiums that serve as evacuation shelters. By the end of fiscal 2014, approximately 88 percent of these facilities nationwide had been made quake-resistant. However, the ratio for local government buildings was only about 74 percent, and that for hospitals stood at some 85 percent.

Work to make local government facilities quake-resistant tends to be left on the back burner for financial reasons.

However, damage caused to local government facilities by the latest disaster has adversely affected restoration efforts. In some Kumamoto Prefecture municipalities including the town of Mashiki, the issuance of disaster victim certificates, the first step toward local residents restoring their livelihoods, has been delayed. In some other municipalities, local government functions have been temporarily relocated to different areas after their headquarters sustained serious damage in the disaster, forcing residents to go from one office to another. Such a situation is burdensome particularly to the elderly.

The Kumamoto Earthquake highlighted how great an impact dysfunctional government organizations can have in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale disaster. Based on lessons learned from this latest disaster, local governments should prioritize allocating budget funds to swiftly make their facilities quake-resistant.

The national government extends financial assistance, such as subsidies, to local governments for their efforts to make their structures quake-resistant. The central government should create a financial assistance system convenient to local governments in an effort to encourage municipalities to make their buildings quake-resistant, in addition to boosting such subsidies.

The current quake-resistance standards, which came into force in 1981, stipulate that structures must not collapse in a way that threatens people's lives even if hit by an earthquake registering an upper-6 to 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale. The standards apply to not only ordinary houses but also facilities that serve as disaster response centers. Nevertheless, the Mashiki Municipal Government headquarters, which met the current quake-resistance standards, suffered serious damage in the latest disaster, in which two temblors registering 7 on the Japanese intensity scale hit Kumamoto. Therefore, the central government should consider whether to strengthen quake-resistance standards for facilities that are supposed to serve as disaster response hubs.

It is essential to prevent damage to local government office buildings from delaying local bodies' responses to disaster victims. The central and local governments are supposed to work out a business continuation plan (BCP) to make sure that they can carry out their duties even immediately after a large-scale natural disaster. Under these plans, government organizations designate facilities as substitute headquarters, and arrange over how to summon officials in case of emergency.

Local governments are generally slow to work out BCPs, while central government organizations have drawn up or are steadily making such plans to prepare for a powerful earthquake that could occur directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area.

The Uto and Mashiki municipal governments, whose headquarters became unusable following the Kumamoto Earthquake, had no BCPs. It is an urgent task for all local bodies across the country to work out such plans to prepare for serious disasters.

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