July 21, 2024

Japan’s Fumio Kishida vows more funds to quake-hit zone

TOKYO >> Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he was “speechless” by the severity and immense destruction of the disaster zone he saw during the helicopter ride on his first visit to the country’s north-central region of Noto since the deadly Jan. 1 earthquakes, amid worries about spreading diseases in evacuation centers.

Kishida pledged to do his utmost to improve the living conditions of the evacuees to rebuild their homes and restore their livelihoods as soon as possible.

The magnitude 7.6 earthquake left 221 dead and more than 20 others still missing while injuring hundreds. More than 20,000 people, many of whom had their homes damaged or destroyed, are taking refuge at about 400 school gymnasiums, community centers and other makeshift facilities, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency report.

Road damage has hampered rescue efforts, and though relief supplies have reached most regions affected by the quake, hundreds of people in isolated areas are getting little support. Additionally, in the hard-hit towns of Noto, Wajima and Suzu, elderly residents account for half their population, and many are facing growing risks of deteriorating health, officials and experts say.

“When I saw the severity of the disaster I was speechless,” Kishida told reporters, saying the aerial view showed gaping grounds, landslides crushing roads, and an elevation of the seafloor, changing the beautiful landscape on the eastern coast of the peninsula. “I also heard from the residents about their difficulties and worries.”

The prime minister said he took the evacuee’s conditions seriously and promised support. “We will do everything we can so that you can have hope for the future,” he said.

Kishida also met with Ishikawa Gov. Hiroshi Hase in the prefectural government in Kanazawa, where he was given a list of requests, including central government funding for the reconstruction of key infrastructure, and emergency loans for individuals and small businesses.

Many have criticized Kishida’s government over what they called a slow disaster response although the cabinet has approved 4.7 billion yen (about $32 million) for relief efforts and is backing the call for a secondary evacuation, including to facilities in the capital region.

Kishida said the cabinet plans to approve a second relief fund of 100 billion yen (nearly $690 million) this week to help people rebuild their lives while doubling the reserve funds of the fiscal 2024 budget to 1 trillion yen ($6.9 billion) to bolster funding for the reconstruction.

The prime minister, in his disaster-response uniform, also visited a junior high school that has turned into an evacuation center in Wajima where officials showed him the evacuees’ severe living conditions. They spoke about the potential risk of spreading infectious diseases, such as influenza, COVID-19 and stomach flu due to the lack of running water and congestion.

To mitigate immediate concerns about possible health problems and risk of death at evacuation centers, local and central government officials said they would provide the evacuees free accommodation at hotels and apartments — further away from their neighborhoods — until temporary housing was ready. But many of the locals have refused to move out, worried about their destroyed homes, belongings and communities.

Hase urged residents on Friday to temporarily relocate to the recommended facilities to rest better and “protect your lives.”

Mototaka Inaba, a medical doctor who heads an international relief organization Peace Winds Japan, told an NHK talk show on Sunday that a secondary evacuation of elderly residents was critical from a medical perspective but should be done in a way that didn’t isolate them.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi also stressed in a pre-recorded interview with NHK the importance of relocating the residents taking into consideration their sense of community, jobs and education.

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