Kumamoto earthquake evacuees face months of hardship ahead

Published: 24 May 2016 11:16 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Two devastating earthquakes struck Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture on the 14th and 16th of April, killing 67 people and damaging or destroying around 75,000 houses. The earthquakes caused the displacement of more than 180,000 people but most evacuees have now found places to stay, either with friends and relatives or in rented apartments. However, there are almost 10,000 people remaining in evacuation centres and many are in serious need of continued support from the Red Cross.

Japanese Red Cross mobile medical teams have been working continuously since the beginning of the disaster, providing medical aid to the affected population, as well as conducting assessments of their needs and numbers.

Many official buildings such as schools have been converted into large evacuation centres that are run by local authorities with extensive support from the Red Cross and other organizations. One of these is Mashiki Sports Centre which is serving approximately 1,500 evacuees. Due to extensive damage to its structure about half of the people have until now been sleeping outside the centre, either in their cars or in a large camp where people are housed in big white tents. As the building has now been repaired the situation is improving.

“The area where our house stands all had to be evacuated because the steep mountain slopes above it have become so unstable,” said Mr Kenji Sakai, a 64 year old farmer.  He and his wife Hiromi, 67, spend their nights in Mashiki Sports Centre and go back to their farm during the day to work in the rice fields.

“Now is the time to prepare the rice seedlings, but it is not easy because it takes a lot of water, and the pipes have been seriously damaged by the earthquake,” said Mr. Sakai. The earth walls around his rice paddies have collapsed in many places, making it difficult to plant them this year. “I will try to plant into about half of the fields, there is so much damage that I cannot repair everything now.”

Their old farmhouse is in such bad shape that the couple cannot live in it. Like so many other houses in Mashiki town it looks intact at first sight, apart from the big blue tarpaulin that Mr Sakai put on the broken roof to prevent the rain from entering. Inside, however, furniture and other household items still lie in big heaps on the floors and parts of the ceiling are falling down. “There are still aftershocks, and because the house is coming apart it is not safe to start cleaning up,” said Mr Sakai.

Their sleeping futons remain stuck underneath two enormous old cupboards made of heavy wood. “Fortunately we evacuated to Mashiki Sports Centre after the first earthquake. If we had been lying in our futons when the second earthquake came we would have been crushed under these huge pieces,” said Mrs Sakai. “Our neighbour went back to his house after the first earthquake. When the second quake came a heavy cupboard fell on him and his wife and they both died.”

On the road and in the forest above the Sakai’s farm boulders the size of houses have come rolling down the steep slopes, leaving wide paths of broken trees behind them. The road up the mountain is still blocked by big rocks and landslides, and it will be a while before it can be made passable again.

“It is really lucky that this one was stopped by the road,” said Mr. Sakai and pointed at an enormous stone that would easily have smashed his house into small pieces.

Meanwhile Mr and Mrs Sakai are still unable to sleep in their damaged home. Every evening they drive back to the evacuation centre in Mashiki Sports Centre where they sleep on the floor among hundreds of other displaced people. The evacuees are still provided with food, and among them are many very old people who need extensive care.

“Before the earthquake I used to work as a volunteer to help the homeless in Mashiki town,” says Mrs Sakai. “Because we are rice farmers I often gave them bags of rice so they would have enough to eat. It is very strange to think that we are now in a similar situation.”

The local government has started the construction of temporary housing for the evacuees, but the numbers of people who have nowhere to go is so great that there will be many months until every family has a place to live in.