11/03/2004, 00.00
JAPAN
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Lessons from the Niigata quake

by Pino Cazzaniga

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – There is always a silver lining, even in an earthquake. Japan is the world's leader in earthquake disaster prevention and mitigation and its policies and procedures have substantially reduced quake-related mortality. The massive quake that hit Niigata prefecture in north-western Japan at 5:51 pm on October 23 is a case in point

The quake that struck this tourist destination famous for its mild and carefree fall season reached a magnitude of 7, the maximum intensity on the Japanese scale, followed over the next 30 minutes by two shocks of almost equal intensity.

Among local residents, the word Yushin or aftershocks has become almost taboo but is constantly heard in official bulletins. Hundreds have occurred, some as high as 5 on the Japanese scale. Tokyo University experts believe that they could last up to a month.

When the quake occurred, a bullet train that was travelling in the area at 210 km per hour derailed. Rail tracks were twisted. This was the first time in the train's 40-year history. However, thanks to sophisticated emergency procedures no one among the 151 passengers suffered major injuries. For many, the worst thing was a two-hour walk in pitch dark till the nearest railway station.

The official death toll from the quake now stands at 36 with 2,383 wounded. About 90,000 residents of the area were evacuated. This is very little compared to the great Kobe earthquake of 1995 which killed 6,433 people. Although the difference is largely due to the fact that the Niigata quake struck an area that is rural and less densely-populated, speed and care in rescue operations played an important role. One tenth of the Kobe victims died because of delays in rescue operations.

But since 1995, the Japanese have learnt their lesson, especially Japan's Self-Defence Forces (JSDF). Now, the JSDF carry out some 400 rescue exercises every year, three times as many as it did in 1995. Furthermore, every prefecture is required to collect data for every quake 5-magnitude or higher.

On the day of the Kobe quake, the first JSDF chopper took off an hour and 28 minutes after the first shock. When the Niigata quake struck, it took the JSDF seven minutes to have their first reconnaissance chopper fly over the affect area. In rapid succession, 2,700 soldiers in 1,000 army vehicles and 80 aircrafts and helicopters were on the ground engaged in rescue operations.

Since 1995 Tokyo's Fire Department has also set up a rapid intervention team of doctors, nurses and earthquake rescue experts. They, too, were quick on the scene in Niigata. Had it not been for them, many local residents would not have made it.

Volunteers also played an important role in Niigata. Although, they might do more harm than good if not organised, this time they were in the hands of seasoned coordinators who used them to good results to help the weak and the elderly, distribute food and water, set up tents, and provide psychological counselling and callisthenics.

Because disasters victims often suffer from the "economy class" syndrome, which is normally associated with long-distance flights but which can result from any forced immobility, helping them move and flex their bodies is crucial. In fact, in the quake area a 43-year-old woman died after spending the night numbed inside a car. Stress and thrombosis (blood clot forming in a blood vessel) were the cause of death.

Given the constant aftershocks, many Niigata residents have been spending the night in their cars rather than in emergency shelters.

The work and dedication of volunteers is precious in helping and comforting the victims.

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