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Latest Fukushima quake puts Japan's preparations to the test

The progression of Tuesday's tsunami in Fukushima Prefecture.

TOKYO -- Thanks to robust disaster preparation, northeast Japan escaped a strong earthquake early Tuesday with minimum damage and injuries, but snags during tsunami evacuations and less-than-timely information from authorities leave room for improvement.

A magnitude-7.4 quake struck off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture at around 5:59 a.m. Tuesday at a depth of 25km, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The temblor registered a "5 lower" on the JMA seismic intensity scale in towns such as Iwaki. Parts of Japan's east coast were under tsunami warnings and advisories for close to seven hours.

By 10:30 a.m., at least 217,000 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures had been ordered to evacuate, and another 42,000 urged to do so, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. At one point, around 14,000 people were seeking refuge in evacuation centers in those three prefectures plus Aomori, Ibaraki and Chiba. A total of 17 were injured, including three who sustained serious injuries such as broken bones. The evacuation orders were lifted later Tuesday.

A fire at a petrochemical complex in Iwaki burned for 25 minutes before being extinguished. More than 300 schools closed for the day.

Tsunami conditions were observed along the coast, reaching a peak of 1.4 meters at the port of Sendai -- the highest level recorded in Japan since a massive earthquake and tsunami ravaged the northeast region in March 2011. Aftershocks up to "5 lower" on the JMA scale and accompanying tsunamis could occur over the next week or so, the JMA has warned.

Know what to do

Localities and companies in eastern Japan have been training for such an event since the 2011 disaster. The city of Sendai began broadcasting warnings from loudspeakers in 79 coastal locations, as well as vehicles fitted with loudspeakers, shortly after the quake hit. Residents were notified via cellphone message when the recommendation to evacuate came in. Helicopters were also used.

"Many residents heeded the call to evacuate," a disaster management official for the city said, noting Sendai's experience in 2011 may have had an impact. "We were fairly successful in getting the word out through multiple channels."

Shiogama, Natori and other towns in Miyagi Prefecture hard hit by the 2011 tsunami opened multiple evacuation centers between 6 and 7 a.m. -- a fairly quick official response. But managing evacuations themselves proved more difficult.

In Iwaki, traffic clogged coastal roads as residents fled in their cars. This despite training instructing those in the city to seek higher ground on foot to give vehicles carrying the disabled and emergency vehicles run of the road.

Disseminating accurate information on the quake and tsunami also proved challenging. The JMA issued tsunami warnings -- indicating the risk of a tsunami from 1 to 3 meters -- and advisories for tsunamis up to 1-meter high three minutes after the quake hit. Around two hours later, the advisory for Miyagi Prefecture was upgraded to a warning in light of the 1.4-meter wave observed at Sendai.

The agency estimates tsunami heights based on factors such as the strength of the triggering earthquake and measurements made offshore. But complex coastline topography in areas such as harbors can reflect waves to increase tsunami heights, making accurate prediction a tall order.

The JMA was criticized for underestimating the 2011 tsunami as well. But such height forecasts are inherently uncertain, a source there said, urging people to check back frequently as information is updated.

Business as usual

Businesses such as manufacturers mounted their own responses to the quake. Nissan Motor, which makes engines at a plant in Iwaki, halted production Tuesday morning, but returned to normal operation after 2 p.m.

The facility has established protocols for getting production back up and running after struggling to resume output after the 2011 quake and tsunami. Under the protocols, the integrity of buildings and equipment must be ensured by ticking off a 117-point checklist following a quake measuring 4 or higher on the JMA scale. If no problems are detected, as was the case on Tuesday, the plant can go back to work immediately.

Some 259 people, including employees, were evacuated to the roof of a Kirin Holdings group brewery in Sendai, near the city's harbor. The plant is a designated evacuation site. Prior training helped ensure the evacuation went smoothly, according to a source involved.

"We will need to see to what degree various disaster-prevention measures put in place after the 2011 disaster, such as tsunami evacuation towers and notification systems for residents, were put to use," said Satoru Masuda, a Tohoku University professor studying regional disaster prevention planning. "While this quake occurred early in the day, cities need also to educate non-residents for an evacuation, keeping in mind that downtown populations surge during the day," he said.


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