Absence of Oshima leaders delayed authorities' response to mudslide

Absence of Oshima leaders delayed authorities' response to mudslide
Workers prepare sandbags to prevent further damage in Oshima on Tokyo’s Izu Oshima island on Saturday morning.

JAPAN - Despite repeated warnings from the weather agency, the temporarily leaderless Oshima town government on Izu Oshima island downplayed a mudslide alert amid a delay in decision-making, and its mayor later said he was not informed of the seriousness of the situation, according to documents compiled by the municipality.

Mayor Masafumi Kawashima and his deputy mayor were away from the town on separate business trips Tuesday, a day before record-breaking rainfall brought by Typhoon No. 26 triggered debris flows on the Tokyo island, claiming dozens of lives.

The absence of the two leaders is believed to have caused the delay in town authorities' response to the emergency.

According to the documents, municipal authorities first issued an alert via a disaster management radio system at 1:05 p.m. Tuesday, half a day before the typhoon hit the island. Although the alert was issued three times by that evening, it mainly warned residents to keep off the pier of the port and did not contain any reference to possible mudslides.

The director of the town's general affairs division, who is responsible for disaster measures and was in charge of the office in place of the absent mayor and deputy mayor, phoned the mayor shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday to tell him the town government would order the first emergency deployment at 2 a.m. Wednesday. This initial deployment involves several senior officials standing by for an emergency.

Based on this schedule, the section chief in charge of disaster prevention measures arrived at the town government offices at 1:30 a.m. It was raining on and off on the island, and the precipitation around that time had already reached more than 20 millimeters per hour.

At 5:38 p.m. Tuesday, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a heavy rain and flooding warning to the town government. At 6:05 p.m., the weather agency also issued a mudslide alert, saying a sediment-related disaster could occur in the area within two hours.

Under the local disaster prevention plan compiled by the municipal government in 2008, town authorities are required to take the following actions upon receiving a mudslide alert:

-Urge residents and those in the relevant area to voluntarily evacuate.

-Use the information in the weather agency's alert as a reference for the mayor to decide whether to issue evacuation advisories.

-Pass the same information to residents and others in the area using the disaster management radio system or a vehicle with a loudspeaker.

However, the town government did not let its residents know of the information in the alert or recommend voluntary evacuation.

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