Photo/IllutrationChildren wait for meals on Sept. 12 in front of a welfare facility that serves as an evacuation center in quake-hit Atsuma, Hokkaido. (Shiro Nishihata)

Many people who lost their homes in the earthquake that ravaged wide areas of Hokkaido a week ago now face the grim possibility of living as evacuees for an extended period.

The central and local governments need to swiftly take effective measures to make the evacuees’ lives as “normal” as possible.

As of Sept. 12, around 1,600 people were living in evacuation centers in the affected areas, including Atsuma, a town where the intensity of the quake reached a maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic scale and many houses collapsed.

The quake destroyed or seriously damaged more than 100 buildings in Hokkaido. It remains unclear how many houses will become unusable in Sapporo, the capital of the northern main island, where soil liquefaction has occurred.

Concerns are rising about the health of the evacuees because prolonged life in shelters can pose serious risks. Living away from home and together with strangers puts enormous mental and physical strains on evacuees.

Measures that could ease their stress should be taken as soon as possible, including installing makeshift beds made of cardboard, setting up partitions to create separate spaces, and supplying nutritious and balanced meals.

After the series of earthquakes that rocked wide areas in and around Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu in 2016, a number of evacuees suffered various health problems.

More than 200 victims in Kyushu, most of them older than 60, died from disaster-related complications, far more than the 50 deaths caused directly by the quakes.

Some important lessons should be gleaned from these facts.

There is an urgent need to offer alternatives to evacuation centers.

The Sapporo municipal government has started issuing “disaster victim certificates” to quake survivors who can apply to stay in vacant municipal housing units.

It is vital to provide policy support to help survivors move to the next stage of recovery, such as offering financial support for temporary repairs of damaged homes and requisitioning private-sector housing units for use by evacuees.

School gyms and other public facilities that are often used to accommodate evacuees are not designed for living.

The Disaster Relief Law requires local governments to establish evacuation centers in response to major natural disasters, but such emergency facilities are to be closed within seven days after the disaster strikes.

Evacuees, however, face difficulties finding new housing within seven days.

In the past, the operating periods of such evacuation centers were usually extended through talks between the central and local governments.

After the Kumamoto disaster, some evacuation centers operated for as long as seven months. The operating period of evacuation centers was relatively short after the magnitude-6.7 Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture in 2004, but it was still about two months.

Yoshiteru Murosaki, a professor at the University of Hyogo and expert in disaster responses and damage mitigation, argues that several months of living in evacuation centers can be very taxing.

Improving the living conditions in such facilities is obviously important. But Murosaki says providing cash directly to evacuees to help them quickly find housing on their own should be discussed as a policy option.

Two years ago, the Cabinet Office developed guidelines for operating evacuation centers. But they do not include really effective measures to close such emergency facilities as soon as possible.

The series of natural disasters that have struck the nation underscore the need for the government to embark on serious efforts to work out systems and programs to prevent survivors from having to live as evacuees for prolonged periods.

The cold season will soon start in Hokkaido. Power will not be fully restored on the island until at least November, leaving the supply-demand balance precarious for many more weeks.

To prevent quake-related deaths, it is crucial to quickly secure adequately air-conditioned housing for evacuees.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 13