July 25, 2005

Tokyo earthquake a foretaste of expected disaster

By Isabel Reynolds

TOKYO (Reuters) - A strong earthquake that struck Tokyo at the weekend, paralyzing public transport for hours, should act as a useful wake-up call for one of the world's most quake-prone cities, disaster experts said on Monday.

The biggest quake in 13 years struck just east of the capital on Saturday, injuring 37 people and triggering chaos in Tokyo's transport network. Highways were closed, subways disrupted and trains halted for hours, leaving many stranded, hundreds of them overnight.

Worried friends and relatives were unable to reach people in Tokyo because mobile phone networks had to limit calls due to overload.

The damage from the magnitude 6.0 quake was a tiny fraction of what can be expected when a tremor 10 or more times more powerful hits the capital -- something seismologists say could happen at any time.

But Saturday's earthquake could help highlight problems in planning, experts say.

"This was a relatively small quake, but if it acts as an alarm call, it is a good thing," said Yoshimitsu Okada of the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention in Tokyo.

Last week a panel of experts warned that Tokyo's preparations for the expected major earthquake were not sufficient.

The panel urged government ministries to draw up plans on how to continue operating after a quake and said they should have at least three days' worth of food and water to hand. Among other recommendations was subsidized fire-proofing for the city's many wooden houses, which could cut the death toll from fires sparked by a quake.

Tokyo's last major earthquake in 1923 killed more than 140,000 in the capital and surrounding area, many of them by fire.

"I wasn't surprised by the problems. In fact I think we got off lightly," said Professor Kiyoshi Ito of the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University.

"I think the next focus is going to be dealing with the aftermath of a quake. It's easy enough to stop an elevator, for example, but how do you get it going again?" he said.

Many Japanese were shocked that nearly 50,000 elevators ground to a halt as the quake struck, in dozens of cases trapping people inside.

"Elevators are a blind spot in our cities," the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial on Monday. "This earthquake has taught us that we need to work out how we can stop them and how we can rescue the people inside."

Experts urged individuals not to leave all preparations up to the government.

Commuters need to learn the route home from work so that they can walk if necessary, Ito said -- no mean feat where many people live two hours by train from their workplace.

Map publisher Shobunsha issued a new map on Monday aimed at helping people to walk home from school or work, listing potential dangers as well as places they may find drinking water and resting spots.

Even rearranging the furniture at home could be vital.

"In the Kobe earthquake, most people who died were suffocated when pieces of furniture fell on them," Okada said. "The absolute minimum you can do to preserve your life is not to put any tall items of furniture in your bedroom."

In 1995, a strong quake hit the city of Kobe 435 km (270 miles) west of Tokyo, killing more than 6,400 people.