Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lessons from past disasters should guide relief efforts

Areas that have been hit hard by the recent series of strong earthquakes in central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture are facing serious shortages of water, food, clothing and other daily necessities.
Quake survivors in Kumamoto and Oita prefectures are desperately asking for more relief supplies three days after the magnitude-7.3 earthquake rocked wide areas in the region in the wee hours of April 16, adding to the damage that had already been done by earlier quakes.
By this time, even households that had prepared for disasters are probably beginning to run out of their emergency supplies of food, water and other essentials.
Every possible effort must be made to prevent situations where quake survivors die because of shortages of essentials and harsh living conditions.
While continuing search-and-rescue operations, the government should work with the private sector in all-out efforts to provide vital relief supplies to evacuees and survivors and improve their living conditions as quickly as possible.
Relief goods are now on their way to disaster-hit areas. But it is vital to ensure that they will actually be distributed to each and every survivor who needs them.
There are limits to the government’s ability to carry out these tasks. It should act swiftly to build a network for supporting people in stricken areas in effective cooperation with private-sector organizations and companies that have the necessary expertise.
One of the main problems that is hampering effective relief efforts at the moment is a “mismatch.”
At the Kumamoto Prefectural government offices, relief goods provided by companies and local governments around the country are piling up fast, waiting to be delivered. This is exactly what happened during many past major natural disasters.
The prefectural government says it can’t swiftly dispatch these goods to survivors because it doesn’t have the necessary information about the conditions in cities, towns and villages. The local government claims it can’t just send the relief supplies off at random.
Meanwhile, the municipal governments are too preoccupied with dealing with sharply increased numbers of evacuees and other matters to gather information about the needs of individual evacuation centers.
There is no effective sharing of information among local governments within the prefecture about how much of what goods are being sent to which areas.
This kind of confusion is inevitable to a certain degree when roads are impassable and telecommunications are disrupted in wide areas.
But more than 90,000 people are living as evacuees, with many staying in their cars. There are growing concerns about their physical and mental health conditions, with the risk of problems such as economy-class syndrome rising.
One important lesson learned from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake is that local governments in the worst-hit areas face the most difficulty in gathering accurate information about damage and survivors.
Learning from the experiences in the 2011 disaster, the government has embarked on sending relief goods to battered areas without waiting for requests from local governments. The government says it will establish distribution centers for relief supplies in Fukuoka and Saga prefectures for this proactive relief approach.
Establishing such distribution centers at places away from disaster-stricken areas proved effective in the 2007 Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake in Niigata Prefecture.
People involved in the mission back then say the efforts were successful because warehouses of transport companies and other useful facilities as well as various related expertise of the private sector were made available.
The lesson from that experience should be put to use now.
Government officials who have experience in responding to disasters and members of nonprofit organizations who are well-versed in volunteer work are now gathering in areas that have been struck by the earthquakes.
The government should capitalize on their expertise and experiences to build quickly an efficient and flexible system to help survivors.
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