Natural Disasters and the Law

Flooded town in the aftermath of Typhoon no. 19 (October 13, 2019)                        Geospatial Information Authority of Japan

Written by: Shigenori Matsui                                                                                        Posted On October 30, 2019

Typhoon no. 19 of 2019, English name Hagibis, hit central Japan on October 12, 2019 and left extensive damages. Japan suffers a huge number of natural disasters, including occasional very powerful earthquakes and tsunamis and, more frequently, very powerful typhoons. As a result, Japan is believed to be the country most ready to face new natural disasters. And this reputation is well deserved. Yet each year, new very powerful natural disasters hit various parts of Japan and cause extensive damages and leave new lessons to learn. This time, Typhoon no. 19 left very important lessons about heavy rains.

Typhoon no. 19 was once a category five hurricane (it was category 2 at the time it landed), with a very strong winds (maximum strength was 44.8 m/s in some places) and very extensive storm areas (roughly half of the main island of Japan was covered). It came close to Japan and eventually landed on the Izu peninsula of the Shizuoka prefecture and went through the Kanto region, hitting Tokyo and nearby suburbs. What was most damaging was a huge amount of rain. In some places, 95mm of rain fell during just one hour and 942.5mm of rain fell within 24 hours. As a result, a huge number of rivers flooded (71 rivers broke off at 140 points and 281 rivers overflew over the dikes) and many of the cities and towns were simply swept in the water. In some places, the sewage system, which is supposed to absorb all rains, simply could not accept all the water that burst onto the ground just as a violent fountain. In the end, 88 persons were dead and seven persons are still missing as of October 25, and more than 74,464 houses were submerged into water or destroyed. Most of the victims were found drowned in the first-floor rooms of the houses or in the cars and many of the victims were senior persons. More than 520,000 houses lost power and more than 163,000 households lost water supply.

The extensive damage added further strain on the residents already suffering from Typhoon no. 15 that hit the Chiba Prefecture in September, and some who suffered devastating losses from the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster in 2011. The powerful Typhoon no. 15 inflicted extensive damages to residents because of very strong winds. In the end, more than 930,000 households lost power and, despite the early prediction of quick recovery by the power company, power outage continued over more than a month. This was because so many electricity poles were toppled and, some of the power lines were located in the remote mountain area, where there were extensive damages to trees. The power company service persons had to cut through fallen trees even to reach to the power lines. The power outage continued even as Typhoon no. 19 hit. Typhoon no. 15 left a lesson about the difficulty of keeping power-lines in remote isolated mountain areas and, maybe, the necessity of creating the compact cities avoiding many local residents scattering in the remote areas. Another very important lesson: sometimes natural disasters could hit the same area one after another.

But there was also some consolation in the aftermath of Typhoon no. 19. The Tokyo Metropolitan government has a huge underground rain-water reservoir and this worked to prevent flooding in the metropolitan area (the Yokohama stadium, which was cleared for a World cup game between Japan and Scotland on October 13, also functioned as a water reservoir and prevented flooding in nearby areas). Railway companies as well as major transportation companies announced in advance planned cancelation of service. Many companies also closed their office. As a result, there was no serious confusion or chaos among commuters.

However, tragically, more than 80 victims died because of the extensive flooding. Though the typhoon was well anticipated and everyone was urged to evacuate, many failed to do so. There had been frequent flooding in the affected areas in the past, but because there had been no flooding for a while, many newcomers did not appreciate the risk. In addition, many victims were seniors and, without help, had extreme difficulty in evacuating. Many were found dead in the car. People are reminded of the danger of running from a flood using cars, especially because, once surrounded by flooded water, it became impossible to open the door from inside and, once the car lost the power, it became impossible to open the windows. But it is also meaningless simply to urge everyone to run on foot. Evacuation plan needs to be more realistic and effective.

The government of course knew the flooding risk and has done improvement of rivers and dikes over the years. Still, in the past, such a serious heavy rain was quite unusual and the government was anticipating the same kind of heavy rain Japan used to face. But nowadays, perhaps due to global warming, the heavy rain has become more frequent and worse. The government surely needed to prepare for much frequent and much worse heavy rain in introducing the flood control measures.

Moreover, it turned out that a proposed plan to strengthen the river dike was rejected in one of the suffered cities because of residents’ opposition, who questioned the necessity of building more stable river dikes just for the improbable heavy rain that may or may not happen only once in hundred years. The local residents chose to preserve the natural beauty over the safety. The river flooded, however, this time.

What was also disturbing was the damages to some of the high-rise condominiums that lost power because of the flooding, leading to no elevator service or no water supply, no drinking water and no washroom use as well. Residents were forced to move out by foot to nearby hotels. The building satisfied all the building codes and was perfectly lawful. But it turned out that it was common for these types of high-rise condominiums to build the power room in the basement and it looks like the countermeasures against flooding was not sufficient.

Furthermore, some of the areas affected had already suffered a devastating loss due to the tsunami in 2011. A mighty tsunami wall had been built. But this time the wall resulted in preventing rain-water to escape and led to flooding. The government failed to consider the flooding risk and include escape gates in the wall.

The legal system for disaster worked. The prime minister quickly established the Extraordinary Disaster Response Headquarter to take countermeasures against all the damages under the Disaster Countermeasures Act and declared the “extremely serious disaster” to cover almost all government spending for recovery by the national government under the Disaster Relief Act. The prefectures that were most hard hit decided to apply the Disaster Victim Life Rebuilding Assistance Support Act to provide disaster life rebuilding assistance support for victims. The government also declared the “specified extraordinary disaster” to grant exceptional treatment for victims for administrative procedures. Upon the relevant requests from prefecture governors, the Self Defense Forces mobilized 31,000 officers and even called for additional 200 reserve officers. These officers saved the residents together with the police officers, firefighters and rescue clues. As a result, there was not much to discuss about any necessity of legal reform.

But surely, the disaster left some new important lessons, including how to educate the risk to local residents, how to facilitate the evacuation of residents, and provide help for vulnerable people for evacuation, how to accomplish river dike improvement over the objection of the local residents, and how to improve the resilience of high-rise condominium against flooding. It will also necessitate the reconsideration of river dike standards in light of the more frequent and worse heavy rain. Further, it raised much fundamental challenge to prepare for multiple disasters to hit the same area right after another. The government needs to consider the flooding risk before introducing the anti-tsunami countermeasures and it needs to consider that the Typhoon or heavy rain might hit the same area multiple times. Some of these tasks might necessitate another legal reform.

Japan must learn these lessons from Typhoon no. 19 and improve its natural disaster system to prevent and counteract against the future similar natural disaster. It is also important for everyone to learn the lesson from this experience in Japan.