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Questions over crisis response, future measures after widespread torrential rain in Japan

People pile up sandbags against a river overflowing into a residential area, where they say water levels are higher than the day before, in Hiroshima's Aki Ward, on July 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Record-breaking rainfall that recently flooded a wide sphere of western Japan, causing landslides and leaving over 120 people dead, left local bodies in a state of confusion as they struggled to assess the damage and rescue residents.

The Cabinet Office ordered the evacuation of 150,000 people on the evening of July 5, after the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) warned earlier in the day that record rainfall was feared, but opposition parties noted that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took part in a party gathering the same evening, and questioned whether they had a proper sense of crisis. Even some officials in the ruling government coalition formed by the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito criticized the response as lax.

Damage from the record rainfall started becoming more serious in the predawn hours of July 6. The same day, five prefectures sought disaster response assistance from the Self-Defense Forces. The prime minister's office and Ministry of Defense gradually boosted their response, going from setting up a liaison office on July 6 to upgrading it to a response office on July 7 and eventually to an emergency disaster response headquarters in the morning of July 8.

At the headquarters on July 9, after the torrential rain had subsided, Abe stressed, "The heat is getting severe, and detailed support for the victims is urgently required." Six opposition parties urged Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to give top priority to the disaster response, and the prime minister's attendance at a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee meeting planned for July 10 was called off. Abe also canceled a trip to Europe and the Middle East from July 11 to 18. He plans to visit areas hit by the rainfall, and calls have arisen from within the ruling coalition for a large supplementary budget to deal with the disaster.

In talks with the prime minister on July 9, Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura noted that the JMA did not issue an emergency warning for his prefecture, which was hit heavily by the downpours, until the last minute, and said efforts were probably needed to provide a better response. It is believed many people hit by the disaster remained in their homes after the evacuation order was issued, and ensuring that more people evacuate is likely to emerge as an important issue in the future.

In a news conference, Suga stated, "We will consider linking disaster prevention and weather information from the JMA with evacuation information from local bodies."

At the same time, the difficulties of responding to damage from a combination of near simultaneous landslides and flooding over a wide area rose to the fore during the latest disaster.

"Going by the scale of the disaster alone, it's on the same level at that of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011," said associate professor Yuki Matsushi of the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University.

An official of the city of Hiroshima, where landslides claimed the lives of 77 people in 2014, commented, "We've had no experience of disasters occurring like this over a wide area at the same time."

Nobuo Kuwahara of the Hiroshima Prefectural Government's crisis management section pointed out, "In the landslide damage four years ago, it was sufficient to dispatch responders in the city of Hiroshima alone, but this time was different. We have to review our response, including how we organized information.

The Okayama Prefecture city of Kurashiki was also hit hard during the latest torrential rains with the Oda River in the city breaking its banks, resulting in record flooding. The rain also caused river flooding in other areas, and landslides occurred. Numerous landslides also occurred in the Ehime Prefecture city of Uwajima, cutting off mountain roads and hitting homes. In both Okayama and Ehime prefectures, the full extent of the damage was still not known as of July 9.

"There are delays in preparing a response to torrential rains over a wide area," Matsushi said. "In the wake of these latest torrential rains, we should create a mechanism to convey the concrete risks to residents."

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Kazumasa Kawabe, and Masahiro Tateno, Political News Department; Azusa Takayama and Itsuo Tokubo, Hiroshima Bureau; Yuta Shibayama, Osaka City News Department; and Shinpei Torii, Science & Environment News Department)

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