Japan ‘needs to learn lessons’ from slow quake response after 30 victims die in cold while trapped, waiting for rescue


More than 30 victims of the January 1 earthquake in central Japan died of hypothermia or froze to death while trapped under collapsed buildings, casualties that a disaster mitigation expert said could have at least been partially prevented had the government reacted more rapidly to the disaster.

Japanese police on Thursday raised the death toll of the magnitude-7.6 quake that struck the Noto Peninsula on New Year’s Day to 238, with 19 people still listed as missing. Of the 238, at least 32 died from extreme cold waiting for rescue teams, police said. Most were in the coastal towns of Wajima and Suzu, on the northern coast of the prefecture, which bore the brunt of the quake and subsequent tsunami.

Most victims were killed when old, wooden buildings collapsed on them, but autopsies indicated around 14 per cent survived in the rubble only to die later from the cold, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

‘Pretty frightening’: survivors recall experience of powerful Japan quake

The first 72 hours after any natural disaster are considered to be the critical window for recovery efforts, as survival rates drop off significantly after that period.

Takeshi Sagiya, a professor at Nagoya University’s Research Centre for Seismology, Vulcanology and Disaster Mitigation, said government and emergency services “need to learn lessons” from the disaster, chiefly to pass accurate information on the scale of a crisis to national and regional leaders so they are able to make the most appropriate decisions.

“We need to develop an automated system that passes on all the critical data to the emergency services so they can respond quickly and save as many lives as possible,” he said.

“The January 1 earthquake was one of the biggest in Japan in recent years and was a major quake even in comparison with the Kumamoto tremor in 2016 and the one on Kobe in 1995,” he told This Week in Asia.

A man stands in front of his home destroyed by fire in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on Thursday, one month after a major earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture. Photo: AFP

“The shaking was even stronger than those quakes, but there were some key differences,” he said.

“Noto is a more remote part of Japan, with a population of mostly elderly people. Most of the homes there are also older, with only an estimated 50 per cent undergoing seismic reinforcement measures, as opposed to 80 per cent nationally.”

The lack of structural reinforcement was compounded by low expectations of a major quake in the area, which meant local residents and emergency services were less prepared, Sagiya said.

“Yet another factor that played a part was that the earthquake was on a national holiday, with lots of families in their homes,” he added.


Woman in her 90s miraculously survives 5 days buried under Japan earthquake rubble

Woman in her 90s miraculously survives 5 days buried under Japan earthquake rubble

The holidays also appear to have caught the prefectural and national governments unprepared, Sagiya said, and it took time to order emergency teams out to the worst affected areas. And even after emergency services were dispatched, they were slowed by destroyed bridges and buckled roads, he pointed out.

“But it is clear that the government reactions were delayed and at least some of the people who were trapped beneath collapsed houses could have been saved,” he said.

“The conditions were difficult, I agree, but more could have been done.”


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