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Many municipalities in typhoon-hit areas in Japan didn't issue top-level disaster alerts

Yoshiji Sato and his wife Kesano observe a moment of silence as a siren sounds, in front of their home in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Marumori, in northeastern Japan, where landslide debris remains. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

A total of 41 municipalities in Japan did not issue top-level disaster alerts despite being hit by flooding as typhoons Hagibis and Bualoi lashed the country in October, breaking river embankments in many areas, a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun has found.

The 41 municipalities were among 70 cities, towns and villages in 12 prefectures polled by the Mainichi Shimbun that were hit by flooding from levee bursts and other causes, where disaster occurrence alerts were deemed necessary.

A top-level disaster alert represents the highest level of evacuation information that local bodies issue to residents under a system launched in May this year, and it is regarded as the last resort for local bodies to have their residents protect their lives. However, in order to issue one, authorities have to confirm that a disaster is taking place. The latest figures indicate that doing so at a time when a natural disaster is underway is difficult.

Previously, the highest level of evacuation information issued by local bodies was an "evacuation order." In comparison, the "disaster occurrence alert" newly introduced by the government is one step above this. It is believed that informing people that a disaster is taking place can encourage them to take optimal steps to protect their lives, such as evacuating to at least the second floor of their homes. The top alert was introduced in tandem with a five-tier "warning-level" system. An evacuation order corresponds to Level 4, while a disaster occurrence alert equals Level 5. They were incorporated into government guidelines pertaining to evacuation information revised in March this year.

Typhoons Hagibis and Bualoi, the 19th and 21st of the year, and accompanying heavy rains were the first natural disasters to claim a large number of lives in Japan since the new guidelines went into effect in May. In the wake of the disasters, the Mainichi Shimbun surveyed 70 municipalities, representing all areas where top-level disaster alerts were deemed necessary, and obtained responses from all of them. Four said they did not use a warning level system. This included the Nagano Prefecture city of Tomi in central Japan, which explained that it would take time to disseminate a warning to its residents. The remaining 66 had implemented the new guidelines, but 41 of them, or just over 60%, did not issue disaster occurrence alerts. The remaining 25 did issue such an alert.

In the city of Shimotsuke in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, an embankment burst, but the city went no further than issuing an evacuation order. Flood prevention workers were unable to approach the scene due to submersion, and because it was nighttime, they could not confirm the embankment collapse from afar.

"It's difficult to actually go to the site to confirm that a disaster is taking place," one city official commented. "We want the central government to enhance its monitoring of water levels."

Officials of the village of Kawauchi in the northeastern Japan prefecture of Fukushima said a disaster occurrence alert was not issued because of the threat of a secondary disaster, while officials in the town of Asakawa in the same prefecture explained that they were busy setting up shelters for residents.

At least one municipality maintained that the level of the disaster did not warrant a disaster occurrence alert, while the city of Chiba east of Tokyo said it was not clear from the government standards what scale of disaster should be taken into consideration and what information should be obtained to issue a disaster occurrence alert. Because of this, it did not issue one.

Government guidelines note that local officials may not necessarily be able to confirm that a disaster is taking place for the purpose of issuing a level 5 disaster occurrence alert, and the government states "it is not the case that an alert will be issued without exception." Local bodies also urge residents to complete evacuations at the stage of a Level 4 warning.

Ryo Moriwaki, a professor at Ehime University with expertise in hydrology and meteorology, commented, "A disaster occurrence alert is not a sign for residents to head to an evacuation center, but rather it is important information intended for people to evacuate to the second or upper floor of a building to protect their lives." He added, "We need to collect case examples from the latest typhoon damage, and discuss methods of collecting information and the standards for issuing an alert in the event of a disaster."

(Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, City News Department)

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