One week has passed since the first emergency warning was issued for heavy rains that hit western Japan. More than 190 people have died in 14 prefectures and search operations for those who remain missing are going on in disaster-hit areas.
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About 26,500 homes were damaged by landslides and floods triggered by the torrential rains. The issue of rebuilding damaged homes will weigh heavily on the shoulders of affected residents.
The Act Concerning Support for Reconstructing Livelihoods of Disaster Victims, which provides for measures to help people whose houses were damaged in natural disasters rebuild their residences, applies to large-scale natural disasters. In the case of a flood, if a house is swept away or water rises at least 1.8 meters above the floor, the structure is regarded as having been destroyed and up to 3 million yen in public funds will be provided to its owner. However, if a house is flooded less than 1 meter above the floor, the structure will be regarded as partially damaged and cannot be covered by such financial assistance.
If a massive amount of floodwater or mud flows into a residence, the structure becomes fragile. It is difficult to continue to live in such a structure even after the water recedes. There are apparently numerous houses that need to be repaired or rebuilt even if they are not covered by public financial assistance.
Questions remain as to how far public support should be extended to the owners of homes, which are private property, if the structures are damaged by a natural disaster. Still, it is tough to require disaster victims who have lost their assets to rebuild their homes on their own.
Past disasters also sparked debate on the limits on public assistance to victims provided under the law. Residences that sustain minor damage are not covered by public assistance. In the wake of the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes, the owners of approximately 9,000 houses that sustained minor damage in the disaster were required to pay at least 1 million yen each to repair them, according to sources familiar with the case.
To make up for the shortcomings in the public assistance system, some prefectural governments provide their own financial assistance to victims, but these local bodies are the minority.
In a survey that the Mainichi Shimbun conducted on the governors of the nation's 47 prefectures and the mayors of 20 major cities, 80 percent of the respondents answered that it is necessary to ease the conditions for providing such financial assistance and expand the scope of those eligible for such aid, and 60 percent replied that assistance for households whose residences sustain minor damage is necessary.
Public assistance under the law is covered by funds set up by prefectural governments, while the national government covers half of the amount paid out to those affected by natural disasters. The national government appears to deem it difficult to extend broad assistance to help disaster victims rebuild their damaged residences as there is growing concern that powerful earthquakes could strike, such as a feared Nankai Trough quake or a temblor occurring directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Still, measures to extend broader assistance to those whose houses were damaged in natural disasters are necessary considering the magnitude of the latest floods that hit extensive areas of western Japan. In-depth debate should be held on how far the national and local government should help disaster victims rebuild their damaged houses.