In-depth Facing Japan’s Extreme Weather Challenges
Addressing Natural Disaster Risks: The Need for Greater Self-Reliance

Katada Toshitaka [Profile]

[2014.10.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

When the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, was hit by a tremendous tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, almost all of its 3,000 elementary and junior high school pupils survived. They were quick to flee thanks in part to the disaster-preparedness training by Katada Toshitaka, who here calls for greater self-reliance in the face of the growing risks from natural disasters.

Meteorological Disasters and the Threat of Unprecedented Mega-Typhoons

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, the focus of Japan’s disaster-fighting efforts has been on earthquakes and tsunamis. These are, of course, serious concerns, but disastrous seismological events occur only occasionally. Meteorological disasters actually pose a more serious threat.

Recently we have been experiencing “guerilla rains” with some frequency, but these intensive downpours are highly localized and do not cause destruction of entire regions. A greater concern is the increasing power of typhoons. Ocean water temperatures have been staying extraordinarily high, and global warming seems to be affecting ocean weather first. Because the water temperatures are so high, it has become common for typhoons to keep gaining strength as they approach Japan. If the current trend persists, it is quite possible that we will be hit by mega-typhoons.

For example, in July 2014 the super typhoon Neoguri struck Okinawa. As of July 7 the pressure at its center was 930 hectopascals, and as it was forecast to become even more intense, an emergency warning was issued. Fortunately the storm did not strengthen further, but subsequent typhoons caused additional torrential rains.

Early in November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, with a central pressure of 895 hPa, pummeled the island of Leyte in the Philippines, causing over 6,000 deaths. Up to now storms of this intensity have not occurred in November, which is late in the typhoon season. By way of comparison, the Muroto Typhoon that struck Japan in 1934, recorded a low pressure of 911 hPa, and the Ise Bay Typhoon of 1959 one of 929. And Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, had a pressure of 902 hPa. So we can see how intense a storm Haiyan was.

In April 2012 Japan’s Meteorological Agency produced simulations indicating the possibility of future typhoons with pressures falling below 850 hPa. If we do not prepare now for mega-typhoons like this, when will we?

Children of Kamaishi Led in Fleeing the Tsunami

In 2004 I started teaching disaster preparedness to elementary and junior high school students in the city of Kamaishi on the coast of Iwate Prefecture. As of 2010, the year before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the possibility of a major offshore earthquake and tsunami striking within the next 30 years was said to be 99% for Miyagi Prefecture, just to the south of Iwate, and 90% for the Sanriku region of which Iwate is part. Even so, in the period before the quake and tsunamis of March 11, 2011, people in Kamaishi were in the habit of ignoring tsunami warnings and evacuation advisories. So I believe that the disaster-preparedness training in the city’s schools was what made children react as they did at the time of the earthquake: Though more than 1,000 people lost their lives to the tsunami that struck the city, many schoolchildren led the way in fleeing before the waters surged, and almost all of the pupils at the city’s 14 elementary and junior high school, some 3,000 children, survived the disaster. 

The essence of disaster management lies in the extent to which one takes measures in advance to mitigate the possible damage. But in Japan, the focus of disaster prevention over the years since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 has been on disaster response—measures to deal with the aftermath. People have thought only about how to provide for the survivors: what to do about food and water, for example, and whether the evacuation centers are adequate.

  • [2014.10.06]

Professor, School of Science and Technology, Gunma University. Specializes in disaster-related social engineering. In addition to researching disaster crisis management and related subjects, Katada is actively involved in local disaster management activities around the country, particularly tsunami-preparedness education in the city of Kamaishi. His works include Inochi o mamoru kyōiku: 3.11 Kamaishi kara no kyōkun (Education to Protect Lives: Lessons from 3/11 Kamaishi).

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