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Natural disasters

A quarter century after quake, Kobe leads preparedness push

Communities and individuals need to keep lessons alive

The magnitude 7.3 earthquake knocked this elevated highway in Higashi Nada Ward on its side.

TOKYO -- The Kobe earthquake, which in 1995 left more than 6,400 dead, destroyed buildings, toppled elevated highways and twisted railroads, served as a reality check for a Japan that boasted modern, supposedly temblor-resistant infrastructure.

Local residents of the western city on Friday marked the disaster's 25th anniversary, observing a moment of silence at 5:46 a.m., the moment the quake began to rip through the city.

Roads and bridges have since been rebuilt or reinforced around the country, and systems for emergency care and victim support in disaster-hit areas have since improved. But it must be remembered that emergency preparedness and response build on ongoing efforts.

A stroll in Kobe's Nagata Ward shows a townscape vastly changed from the devastation after the events of Jan. 17, 1995. Rubble from collapsed or fire-damaged structures has given way to new homes and public housing complexes, and narrow alleyways have been widened to let fire trucks pass through. The Hyogo Prefecture port city has added 331 small neighborhood parks -- which act as firebreaks -- to bring the total to 1,501 such parks as of March 2019.

In Kobe, 91% of homes were quake-resistant as of 2013 -- above the national average of 82%. And more than 99% of public elementary and middle schools in Japan now are, thanks to efforts to make schools safer.

Making cities less prone to devastating fires in the aftermath of a powerful temblor requires comprehensive, time-consuming redevelopment. Kobe still has 199 hectares of densely inhabited areas with great fire risk where evacuation or escape is difficult, according to government data as of March 2019.

People light candles to pay their respects to those who died in the 1995 earthquake. (Photo by Maho Obata)

By prefecture, Osaka leads in high-risk areas at 1,885 hectares, compared with 357 hectares in Kyoto and 316 hectares in Tokyo. The national total reaches 3,149 hectares.

Tokyo has designated high-risk areas as special zones and provides subsidies for removing aging wooden structures. Businesses are also eager to demolish these houses and build new high-rises in the capital. But Osaka is lagging in this effort, as it suffers from weaker momentum in urban redevelopment.

The progress notwithstanding, Japan needs to do more in the face of the high risk of a powerful quake hitting Tokyo or the central or western regions. A whopping 610,000 homes are said to be at risk of collapse or destruction by fire should a catastrophic tremor strike the heart of the world's most populous city.

"Our greatest accomplishment [since the Kobe earthquake] is not infrastructure reinforcement, but rather the networks of community residents supporting one another after experiencing devastation together," said Yoshiteru Murosaki, dean of the Graduate School of Disaster Resilience and Governance at the University of Hyogo.

Nagata Ward in Kobe was in ruins after the January 1995 earthquake.

Kobe has formed emergency response communities -- where such local groups as volunteer firefighter units, school PTAs and neighborhood watches cooperate on disaster drills and caring for those in need -- in all 192 of its districts.

Equally important is disaster preparedness at the individual or household level. People need to secure their homes, create family emergency plans, and review these steps at least once a year, just as they go for annual physicals. As a Japanese aphorism says, a natural disaster strikes when the memory of the previous one starts to fade.

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