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60% of areas hit hard by Kumamoto quakes cite difficulty in closing temporary housing

Takako Masuoka stands at the site of her home in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, which was destroyed in the April 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, on March 28, 2017. (Mainichi)

Over half of municipalities hit particularly hard by the April 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake believe it is difficult to close their temporary housing for surviving victims within two years, which is the legally set upper limit, a Mainichi Shimbun survey shows.

As many of these local bodies cite the aging of evacuees as a key reason for that, the survey results have highlighted serious challenges to relief measures for surviving quake victims, such as assistance to elderly evacuees who face financial difficulties.

April 14 marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the Kumamoto Earthquake disaster. Some 44,000 people are still living at temporary housing and private apartments that affected local bodies lease for evacuees as temporary housing units.

The Mainichi Shimbun recently surveyed the mayors of 21 cities, towns and villages hit particularly hard by the earthquakes, and 13 or roughly 60 percent of them said it is difficult to close all temporary housing within two years. Only three municipalities, including the city of Yatsushiro, responded that they can completely close their temporary housing units within two years.

The Disaster Relief Act stipulates that evacuees can live at temporary housing, including private apartments local bodies lease as temporary housing, for up to two years, in principle.

As the reasons for expecting that the evacuation will likely be prolonged, many of the mayors of these municipalities cited difficulties in securing businesses to rebuild houses, evacuees' financial difficulties and the need to support elderly people.

The mayor of the city of Uto said, "It takes a long time to respond to the needs of elderly evacuees living alone."

The mayor of Yamato replied, "About half of the evacuees in the town are elderly people, and these evacuees are worried about their future."

According to the Kumamoto Prefectural Government, elderly people aged 65 or over were living alone at 606, or 15 percent of 4,179 occupied temporary housing units as of the end of March 2017. Moreover, 800 households, or 19 percent, consist solely of multiple elderly people such as married couples. Therefore, over 30 percent of households living at temporary housing consist solely of elderly members. The figures are 13 percent for elderly people aged 65 or over living alone and 19 percent for multiple elderly people living together in households occupying private apartments local bodies lease as temporary housing units, totaling 32 percent.

Takako Masuoka, 77, who has been living alone in temporary housing since July last year, is wondering if she should rebuild her residence. Her home in the town of Mashiki, where the earthquake's April 14 foreshock and April 16 main shock registered up to 7 on the 7-point Japanese intensity scale, was destroyed in the disaster.

"I want my own home, but I'm already old," she said. Her husband died five years ago, and she managed to have her destroyed home, which had been built 35 years ago, dismantled. However, even if she spends a massive amount of money to rebuild her house, she wonders how long she can live there, she said.

"My most serious worry is how I should secure my next home," Masuoka said.

In Kobe and surrounding areas and on Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture that were hit hard by the January 1995 Great Hanshin and Awaji Earthquake, it took affected local bodies about five years to close all temporary housing units.

As of March this year, approximately 80,000 people were still living at temporary housing in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures hit hard by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, even though six years had passed since the disaster.

Bearing in mind such a reality, Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima told the Mainichi Shimbun this past March that the prefecture intends to extend the period during which evacuees can live in temporary housing.

In the case of the Kumamoto Earthquake, which has been designated as a specified disaster, the period when evacuees can live in temporary housing can be extended if the national government agrees to the measure.

Kabashima said the prefectural government "must promote the reconstruction of evacuees' houses while offering various options" such as housing loans for elderly people.

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