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Officials fear Hokkaido’s graying population may be slow to evacuate if megaquake hits

The graying population of Hokkaido is a major obstacle to evacuation plans in the event of a large predicted earthquake, which it is feared will cause extensive damage to the northernmost prefecture.

The projected death toll in Hokkaido from a huge offshore quake in the Japan Trench or the Chishima Trench represents some 30% to a majority of the total, depending on its timing, according to the latest quake damage estimates released Tuesday by the government’s central disaster management council.

Since such an earthquake would cause devastating tsunamis, early evacuation is key to saving the lives of residents.

A tsunami of up to 8.3 meters high would be expected to hit the city of Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido 33 minutes after a possible megaquake in the Chishima Trench, also known as the Kuril Trench, in the Pacific, according to an estimate released in April last year.

The first wave would flood the city office building up to a height of 5.9 meters. The office is meant to serve as a command center for evacuation in the city of 160,000 people.

Damage estimates change depending on conditions. Kushiro officials are most concerned about an earthquake in winter, due to difficulties in evacuating elderly people in the snowy season.

Every year, the city government holds evacuation drills even in the midst of snowfall, and checks evacuation routes. “We want people to realize how hard it is to evacuate when it’s slippery due to snowfall,” a city official said.

“Some elderly people might give up on fleeing, so we have to encourage them to evacuate as soon as possible,” the official added.

In Kushiro, 35% of the population are people age 65 or older, and 17% are those are age 75 or older.

Masahito Toki, a 70-year-old member of a local voluntary organization for disaster prevention formed by several communities, is worried that elderly people will have to support each other in the event of an evacuation.

The organization has decided who will accompany elderly residents on their way to evacuation shelters in the event of a disaster. But Toki said that more support needs to be extended to vulnerable elderly residents.

In the event of a megaquake, it is estimated that the town of Kushiro, which borders the city of the same name, would be hit by a tsunami up to 27 meters high.

To brace for a disaster in winter, the town government has about 20 heaters in its office that can be used even during a power outage. Such heaters are also kept at some schools and other buildings that would be used as evacuation shelters.

“We’re encouraging residents to prepare a change of clothes, and body warmers, in the event that they have to evacuate in winter,” a town official said.

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