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Quake-hit Hokkaido to build large temp homes for elderly, disabled to keep communities

Mud and sand from landslides triggered by the Sept. 6 earthquake have been removed from major roads in the southern Hokkaido prefectural town of Atsuma on Sept. 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

SAPPORO -- The prefectural government of Hokkaido has decided to construct large-scale temporary housing facilities for the elderly requiring nursing care and people with disabilities affected by a strong earthquake on Sept. 6, according to people familiar with the decision.

The northernmost prefecture plans to have the facilities ready for prospective residents before the end of this year, they said. Hokkaido has devised the plan so that these people displaced by the quake can stay together and maintain their communities. It is hoped that the arrangement can prevent their health from worsening due to sudden changes in their living conditions caused by the quake disaster. The project is the first of its kind in Japan, according to experts.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and other disasters, the health of many senior citizens and people with disabilities at affected facilities deteriorated as they were forced to evacuate and live in separate locations.

Under the current plan, the prefectural government will construct a temporary housing facility in each of the towns of Atsuma and Abira in southwestern Hokkaido. Atsuma was hit by tremors measuring a full 7 on the Japanese 7-point seismic intensity scale, while Abira was shaken by jolts nearly as strong. In the two towns, the quake rendered two homes for elderly people needing special care unusable, along with one facility for the disabled.

As a result, a total of some 130 residents at the three homes have been forced to evacuate to other facilities in Hokkaido, including one some 100 kilometers away in the Tokachi region.

The planned facilities will have small-scale blocks of residential units connected by corridors to a shared space including a hall, cafeteria, bath and offices. The design is intended to allow easy movement by wheelchair or gurney, easing caregivers' workload. Bathtubs specially designed for the elderly and disabled are also being installed, but the prefectural government is still in talks with the central government as to who will shoulder the cost. Such features are not included in the legally required specifications of a temporary housing unit for disaster victims.

Noritaka Murakami, who ran the now damaged home for the elderly in Abira, emphasized he hopes the people under his care will be able to move into the new facilities soon. "Changes in the environment, caregivers or hospitals can cause stress to patients and even lead to death. Our staff, who also suffered in the earthquake, now have to work harder to care for our elderly charges living scattered in different places," said Murakami.

Professor Satoshi Ishii at the Department of Architecture of the Tohoku Institute of Technology, a specialist on post-disaster care services, explains that the Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2016 earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture forced senior citizens and people with disabilities living in care facilities to live in separate temporary housing facilities in smaller numbers. "There is no precedent for a (temporary) facility large enough to accommodate all residents of a care home," said Ishii.

A senior Hokkaido official noted that the current Disaster Relief Act envisions only a limited number of scenarios for helping disaster victims. "I want them (the central government) to set a good precedent by covering the entire cost" of helping those hit by disasters, the official said.

(Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Hokkaido News Bureau)

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