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Hokkaido quake evacuees living out of their vehicles run risk of blood clots

Earthquake evacuee Kazuhiko Nishida lies down on a futon laid out in the back of his van, in Mukawa, Hokkaido, on Sept. 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

MUKAWA, Hokkaido -- Many residents here are continuing to sleep in their cars in fear of aftershocks following a major earthquake that rocked the town on Sept. 6, prompting warnings from the municipal government they could develop "economy class syndrome" from staying in cramped spaces.

In Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, fall comes early, and on Sept. 11, a low temperature of 5.8 degrees Celsius was measured in the center of the town of Mukawa -- closer to temperatures in early October than mid-September. With no end to residents' evacuation in sight, exhaustion is beginning to color their faces.

"I've been sleeping in my car this whole time. My body started to feel stiff yesterday," said 63-year-old Takako Nishida as she sat on a futon laid out over the reclined back seats of her van. Her vehicle is parked in a corner of the parking lot of the "Shiki no Yakata" rest stop, which has become the biggest evacuation center in Mukawa.

The foundations of Nishida's house were displaced by the earthquake, which scattered furniture, appliances and other items across the floor, leaving no place to walk. Their residence remains uninhabitable, so she and her husband Kazuhiko set off in their van for the rest stop evacuation center. The couple, however, were unable to sleep due to anxiety about the possibility of the roof collapsing in an aftershock, so they retrieved a futon from their home and have been sleeping on it in their car since the first night after the quake -- now over a week ago. Exhausted from this arrangement, the couple say they have lost the energy to even clean their home.

The Mukawa Municipal Government has found that several vehicles are being used as locations for evacuees to sleep. But it warns this could put residents' heath at risk from "economy class syndrome." The condition occurs when a person stays in a cramped space like the inside of a car or an airplane for a long period of time without moving their legs. The blood flow decreases, and blood clots that form in the lower extremities travel into the lungs and clog blood vessels. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain, and in some cases the blockages can be fatal. Cases were confirmed in the wake of the 2004 Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake, as well as after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake disasters.

Now well into the month of September, the mornings and evening are getting colder. When the Nishidas feel the temperature drop, they turn on the car engine to run the heater. However, if the exhaust fumes filter back into their vehicle, they could possibly suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning.

"Even temporary housing is fine," said Kazuhiko. "We would just like somewhere to live as soon as possible."

(Japanese version by Jun Kaneko and Yoshiro Sakai, City News Department)

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