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Half of areas near volcanos lack escape plans 5 yrs after Mt. Ontake eruption

People pray for the victims of the 2014 volcanic eruption of Mt. Ontake on its fifth anniversary on Sept. 27, 2019. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- As Japan marks Friday the fifth anniversary of a volcanic eruption of Mt. Ontake, which killed 58 people and left five others missing, a government survey shows about half of the municipalities near active volcanos remain without evacuation plans.

Only 105 of the 190 cities, towns and villages near Japan's 49 volcanoes have compiled evacuation plans as of late July under a law that was revised in 2015 following the country's deadliest postwar volcanic disaster, the Cabinet Office said.

The 3,067-meter mountain that straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures erupted in 2014 without some of the usual warning signs. The law revision was aimed at improving preparedness for such a situation by obliging local governments near volcanoes to draw up evacuation plans based on hazard maps and disaster scenarios.

But the municipalities have cited difficulties in drawing up the plans due to a lack of experts and data on past eruptions.

Three municipalities near Midagahara, a volcano in Toyama Prefecture in the Tateyama mountain range, aim to compile their evacuation plans by the end of March next year.

However, a Toyama prefectural government official said, "We lack data and experience. The terrain characteristics differ by area so we cannot create a plan that is one-size-fits-all." Midagahara is believed to have last erupted in 1836.

Among 30 municipalities in Aomori, Akita and Iwate prefectures near Towada, a volcanic area in northeastern Japan, only five have finalized their evacuation plans.

"The last volcanic eruption occurred more than 1,000 years ago, and it is difficult to have a sense of urgency," said an official from one of the prefectures.

A village near a different volcano has only one official responsible for disaster plans. "Measures against frequent floods and landslides are prioritized" over volcanic activities, the official said.

Meanwhile, some other municipalities have collaborated with mountain rescuers and guides as well as tourism facilities in boosting preparedness for any volcanic eruption.

In Nagano Prefecture, mountain guides and tourist agencies have been informing people about the tragedy at Mt. Ontake.

The town of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture located at the foot of Mt. Nasu, north of Tokyo, drafted an evacuation plan with the advice of local rescuers. An emergency route down the mountain for evacuations, an alternative to the usual hiking route, was added to the plan thanks to their input.

The city of Beppu in southwestern Japan's Oita Prefecture has distributed leaflets to local tourist attractions to inform visitors of features of Mt. Tsurumi and the gear needed to scale the volcanic mountain.

The number of refuge facilities for hikers has been on the rise with 195 set up near 28 volcanoes as of 2018, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. The figure includes reinforced mountain huts and rest houses.

"There are few experts in each region to keep an eye on local volcanoes, making it very difficult for municipalities to seek advice in making plans for the eventuality of a volcanic eruption," said Takayoshi Iwata, a professor at Shizuoka University well versed in volcanic disasters.

He said it was necessary to create a professional organization involving experts from universities, the Japan Meteorological Agency and the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Resilience.

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