October 17th 2019
In northeastern Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, which so far has counted the most storm deaths, just 1.6% of residents subject to evacuation orders had actually gone to shelters by the time the typhoon had passed. Even taking into account those who may have rode out the rain and wind on the second or higher floors of their homes, this is a remarkably low figure.
The low evacuation rate has also been noted for past natural disasters. It has been pointed out that one reason for people’s reluctance to seek shelter is the state of the shelters themselves.
Basic requirements for evacuation centers, including sanitation and living conditions, are set under the Sphere standards, drawn up by the International Red Cross and other organizations. These specify that every person in a shelter should have at least 3.5 square meters of personal living space, but Japan’s evacuation centers do not meet this and many other Sphere requirements.
A 2012 Reconstruction Agency deliberative committee study estimated that some 30% of deaths related to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake was caused by “physical and psychological exhaustion” stemming from living at evacuation centers and other spaces. More specifically, the committee pointed to evacuees being forced to live in extremely limited space, sleeping on cold floors with only a single blanket to keep them warm.
The evacuation shelter living conditions problem was not sufficiently addressed in subsequent years. There were many deaths among the elderly due to similar causes after the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake.
The majority of local governments use schools as emergency shelters, and in many cases evacuees are forced into extremely restrictive living conditions in the schools’ gymnasiums. For instance, an average of just 3% of public elementary and junior high school gyms across Japan has climate control equipment, making it all the more difficult for evacuees to maintain their health.
There are also problems with washroom facilities. It is not unusual to find emergency shelters equipped only with traditional squat toilets, which can be difficult to impossible to use for disabled people and elderly evacuees with leg and hip problems.
Before Hagibis hit, the Japanese government called on local governments to make sure their shelters had female friendly facilities, including separate toilets and nursing rooms. Further central government guidance to local authorities on how to improve emergency shelter management is essential.
It is furthermore necessary to make sure evacuation centers are in easily accessible locations. There was an especially tragic case during the recent typhoon of a woman who drowned in her car as she was trying to get to a shelter. Each local government needs to check to make sure all the routes to their emergency shelters are safe.
According to Cabinet Office figures from the morning of Oct. 16, more than 4,000 people were still living in emergency shelters. These shelters must be managed not just with the material in mind, but also human dignity.