Saturday, April 16, 2016

Let past quake experience come into play to help Kumamoto

Stone walls of Kumamoto Castle collapsed at night on April 14 because of the earthquake. (Masamichi Naka)
A big earthquake jolted the city of Kumamoto at night 127 years ago. As many people were sleeping, they were trapped under their collapsed homes.
Even sturdy Kumamoto Castle, completed in the early 17th century by the local feudal lord Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), did not escape damage. The castle's steep stone walls, nicknamed "musha-gaeshi" (literally, warrior-repelling) for their design to keep the enemy at bay, crumbled in many places.
According to contemporary newspaper reports on the 1889 disaster, what unsettled people the most was a rumor that spread like wildfire in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
A citizen claimed to have heard rumblings from a nearby volcano a few days before the quake. This set off the rumor that the volcano was about to blow, and police officers had to be dispatched to every village in the neighborhood to calm down the terrified residents.
The panic was brought under control only when a well-known geologist traveled all the way from Tokyo and declared that the volcanic rumblings were not a precursor of any major event.
The 1889 temblor killed 20 people, injured 74, and left more than 400 buildings totally or partially destroyed. Some 800 aftershocks continued until the end of that year, keeping everyone in a state of acute anxiety.
In the major earthquake that struck parts of Kumamoto Prefecture on April 14, damage concentrated in the town of Mashiki and the cities of Uki and Kumamoto--the very areas that were most heavily affected by the 1889 quake.
There are other similarities between the two seismic events: Both were of about the same intensity and happened at night, were followed by numerous strong aftershocks, and caused damage to the stone walls of Kumamoto Castle.
What does an earthquake feel like when it registers 7 on the Japanese scale of seismic intensity?
"It sounds like a truck crashing into your home," said a person who experienced one in the past. Another described the shaking as "like being on a plane that's going through severe air turbulence."
And a female resident of Mashiki recalled the April 14 jolt this way: "The ground spun around."
All these descriptions defy the imagination of anyone who has not experienced a violent earthquake of that intensity.
The Japanese word "shinsai" denotes a seismic disaster. An earthquake is a geological event that is beyond human control. But we can at least curb the extent of a disaster, and that is what Kumamoto urgently needs now.
Now is the time to draw upon every lesson on disaster-response we have learned, at tremendous sacrifice, from the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Chuetsu Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake.
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