Photo/Illutration The Asahi Shimbun

A highly active “baiu” seasonal rain front dumped torrential rain in southern parts of Kyushu for days starting at the end of June.

The latest onslaught of heavy rain came just one year after a rain disaster that left far more than 200 people dead or missing in wide areas across western Japan.

The phrase “beyond all expectations” should no longer be used in describing an amount of rain. We should not limit our assumptions of how much rain could fall as we try to improve our preparedness for rain-caused disasters.

The torrents of rain caused rivers to overflow and triggered massive landslides in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, killing two people.

Since there are many areas in the region where the ground is soft after days of heavy rain, government agencies and other organizations concerned should keep close watch on the situation and provide relevant information quickly.

During last year’s spate of torrential rain, disaster prevention and meteorological information provided by various institutions failed to prompt swift and appropriate evacuations, a reason for the large number of casualties.

In response to the bitter lessons learned from the disaster, a new alert system has been introduced in which the Japan Meteorological Agency describes the seriousness of situations using a 5-level emergency scale for flooding and landslides.

In the prefectures of Kagoshima and Miyazaki, the agency categorized the magnitude of the risks as a Level 4 on the scale, which urges all local residents to “escape to safety.” Depending on the urgency of the situation in each area, each municipality issued either an “advisory" or an “order” based on this assessment.

The new system proved effective, at least to a certain extent, apparently because the meaning of a “Level 4” warning had become widely known through newspaper and TV reports. But some problems with the system also came to light.

In the city of Kagoshima, the capital of the prefecture, for example, citizens were uncertain as to where they should go after a Level 4 order was issued for the entire city. They also feared that they would get stuck in a traffic jam if they tried to flee by car.

These people may have misinterpreted the phrase “escape to safety” as meaning that they need to leave home and go to evacuation centers set up by the local administration.

Under the government’s disaster warning system, however, “escaping to safety” simply means taking shelter in a safe place, which could be the home of a relative or a friend, or even the second floor of one’s home, which is safer than the first floor in facing the threat of flooding.

How many people were aware of this fact? How did the information provided by local governments and other public organizations reach local residents and what kind of actions did they take in response?

After the situation returns to normal, the authorities need to conduct a survey to find answers to these questions and fix problems, if any, with the way they responded to the situation.

The Kagoshima municipal government should be praised for trying to alert citizens to the urgency of the situation despite the possibility that the warning could turn out to be a false alarm.

Other local governments should follow suit without hesitation.

But it would probably be better if local administrations differentiated advisories and orders for high-risk areas such as landslide-prone areas and river basins from those for other areas.

Local governments need to use their actual experiences to steadily improve the quality of their warnings and instructions.

Many people in Kyushu have said they were reminded of the deadly rain disaster that hit the northern parts of the island in July 2017. Others have said they evacuated their homes as they remembered the torrential rain that hit the city of Kagoshima on Aug. 6, 1993, known as the "8.6 Suigai" (flood disaster), which killed 48 and left one person missing.

Their accounts underscore the importance of knowledge about disasters that occurred in specific areas in the past for efforts to prevent damage from similar disasters.

It is vital to learn from the past to be better prepared for possible future disasters.

One potentially effective tool for such efforts is the “disaster and evacuation card” the Cabinet Office is trying to popularize.

The card is designed to encourage people to walk around their towns and check the locations of areas vulnerable to rain disasters as well as the routes to designated evacuation centers and the time required to reach them. The card is used to take note of these important pieces of information.

This tool also helps people realize that in emergencies they may have to act on their own judgment.

Constant efforts to prepare for disasters can make a difference between life and death.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 7