April earthquakes expose Japan’s recovery limits
Officials and residents still picking up pieces after double temblors
MINAMIASO, JAPAN Hiroaki Morio and his family finally moved out of an emergency shelter last week, after living there since April when a massive magnitude-7.3 earthquake left their home damaged and perched on the edge of a cliff.
The quake — the second big one in two days — left 95 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. It triggered landslides, wiped out roads and bridges, and destroyed or badly damaged 160,000 homes and buildings, an estimated $45 billion in damage.
Morio, his wife and daughter survived but had no idea when, or if, they'd be able to return home.
“In Japan, we have a lot of earthquakes, but I always thought I’d be lucky. I never thought I’d have to face a situation like this,” Morio, 52, said.
Throughout the disaster zone in southwestern Japan, officials and residents are still picking up the pieces.
“We were lucky that the number of deaths and injuries was relatively low, but the large number of damaged homes and buildings is something we’re having to cope with,” said Kunio Kabashima, the governor of Kumamoto prefecture at the epicenter of the quakes.
Kabashima said officials were unprepared for the magnitude of the April 16 earthquake and the hundreds of aftershocks in the following weeks. Although the region regularly gets hurricanes and torrential rains, it’s been almost a century since Kumamoto had a major seismic event.
“I have to confess, I didn’t think Kumamoto would ever suffer an earthquake,” Kabashima said.
The tremors damaged local government offices and emergency centers throughout the region, which slowed the initial response. Tens of thousands of residents were forced to sleep in their cars, outdoors or in damaged homes until shelters could be opened and supplies delivered.
“We thought that building strong schools and strong hospitals was the most important thing. But you have to have strong government buildings, too, because if those are destroyed, then you have no way of directing the response,” said Kabashima, a Kumamoto native who graduated from the University of Nebraska and earned a doctorate from Harvard.
In many respects, recovery from the double earthquakes has been faster than expected.
Most roads, bridges and train lines have been repaired. Factories and offices in Kumamoto City, the regional hub, have returned to normal. A major highway connecting the hardest-hit towns and villages to the rest of the region will partially reopen this month.
About 4,000 temporary homes were opened by mid-August, with several thousand more on the way. About 1,000 people were in shelters last week, down from a peak of 188,000 in late April.
Even so, the recovery is dragging for many.
Here in Minamiaso, a picturesque mountain village of about 12,000, officials had a written disaster plan, but few of them had experience dealing with the real thing. The April 16 quake destroyed a major highway bridge and tunnel, isolating the town and preventing significant outside help from arriving for days.
Even after assistance arrived, residents and officials had difficulty with the cumbersome process of assessing damage and issuing payments and permits for reconstruction.
Ruichi Matsumoto, 31, Minamiaso’s housing development chief, said previous disasters in Japan — like the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan — provided important lessons nationwide, but no hands-on experience for local officials here.
“We do have data and documentation, and in a sense that’s very helpful. But we’ve never done this ourselves. And looking back on it, we weren’t prepared at all,” Matsumoto said.
The Aso Bridge collapsed in Minamiaso, Japan, during a pair of powerful earthquakes over two days in April.
Hiroaki Morio, 52, stands in front of his ruined home in Minamiaso, Japan.