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Authorities' downpour warning didn't reach some residents, caused evacuation delay

The Arii neighborhood of the Mabicho district of the Okayama Prefecture city of Kurashiki is seen submerged by muddy water on July 7, 2018. (Photo courtesy of a local resident)

When torrential rains hit western Japan at the beginning of July, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued its 10th heavy rain "emergency warning" since the system was introduced in fiscal 2013 for 186 municipalities in 11 prefectures as an unprecedented "ultimatum." However, that urgency failed to reach local governments and residents, resulting in the worst heavy rain disaster of the Heisei era.

On the morning of July 5, Chief Forecaster Ryuta Kurora of the JMA's Forecast Division was shocked by the readout on his computer when he arrived at work. Over a wide swath of the Japanese archipelago, it was estimated that a stationary seasonal front would dump over 200 millimeters of rainfall per 24 hours for the next three days. Faced with data that he had never seen before, Kurora thought to himself, "Large rivers will likely overflow," and felt a growing sense of urgency.

Kurora's superior, Forecast Division Director Yasushi Kajihara, thought that the JMA should hold a press conference about the heavy seasonal rains -- something completely out of the ordinary. While the JMA had yet to collect enough data to precisely identify the areas at risk, JMA Director-General Toshihiko Hashida decided that they should go ahead with addressing the public.

"There is a danger of record heavy rains from western to eastern Japan," Kurora emphasized at the press conference held at 2 p.m. on July 5. During a similar announcement at 10:30 a.m. the following day, the JMA went as far as to bring up the possibility of the unprecedented front being raised to the highest level, the "ultimatum," of a heavy rain "emergency warning."

Indeed, at 5:10 p.m. that day, the "ultimatum" went out across three prefectures including Fukuoka on Japan's southern main island of Kyushu, and gradually expanded as the front moved up until July 8. Each municipal government in the path of the front issues evacuation advisories and orders to a maximum of some 8.63 million people, but according to a summary by the Mainichi Shimbun, as of July 30, the number of victims from the rains has risen to 221 people.

Mayor Yoshiake Shinhara of Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, where 24 residents lost their lives, flew to Tokyo on the evening of July 5, but the mayor's aides decided that there was no need to report the JMA warning to the mayor. Thus, Shinhara continued with his business in Tokyo, visiting the Ministry of Finance and other government agencies during the morning hours of July 6, and made his return to Hiroshima that evening. However, caught up in traffic, Shinhara ended up arriving at Kure City Hall after 11 p.m. Nearly three and a half hours had passed since the JMA had issued the emergency warning for Hiroshima Prefecture.

Hideki Sadamori, the head of the disaster countermeasure division of the Hiroshima Municipal Government's crisis management department, came into work at 6:30 a.m. on July 6 and began to continually refresh on his computer the JMA five-level, color-coded map of landslide risk levels due to the amount of rainfall. At 7:40 a.m., the JMA emergency warning for heavy rainfall was issued, and the map was awash with purple -- the highest risk level. The soil must already be saturated, he thought, and hoped that the rain would soon let up.

When 77 residents of the city of Hiroshima became victims of landslides in August 2014, it was determined that the evacuation advisory had been too delayed, and the disaster plan for the area was revised such that the municipal government could order residents to escape even before evacuation centers had opened. This time, 23 people were taken by the torrential rain disaster, and the majority of them lived in areas where advisories had been issued.

"We felt a strong sense of crisis," Sadamori said, lamenting, "Did we fail to do enough to convey that to the residents?"

Meanwhile, in the Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, where flooding of the Oda River took the lives of 51 people, 71-year-old Yoshitada Suwa said as he watched the JMA's July 6 press conference on public broadcaster NHK, it did not occur to him that he was in any danger. But at around 9 p.m. that day, the road in front of his home was covered in water, and before long, his house was flooded as well. He was rescued from the second floor of his home by a Self-Defense Forces boat.

"Even though the Japan Meteorological Agency and the municipal government sent out information, I was still thickheaded," Suwa reflected.

At a press conference on July 12, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed, "These last several years, disasters from unprecedented torrential rainfall have been occurring one after the other. There is a necessity to responsibly inspect the situation, including the link between meteorological disaster prevention and evacuation information." Indeed, after the large-scale disasters, re-examination of the methods by which information is sent out is required.

"The creation of new types of information like the recent designation 'emergency warning' led to a weak perception of evacuation advisories, and possibly caused some residents to stay," pointed out professor Takayoshi Iwata, head of the Shizuoka University Center for Integrated Research and Education of Natural Hazards. "This time, the JMA's sense of crisis was not properly conveyed to the people. The mayors of local governments involved should reach out to residents directly, or even the prime minister or chief Cabinet secretary should hold a news conference in the future."


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