April earth­quakes ex­pose Ja­pan’s re­cov­ery lim­its

Of­fi­cials and res­i­dents still pick­ing up pieces af­ter dou­ble tem­blors

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Kirk Spitzer USA TO­DAY

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.

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