April 18, 2011

JAPAN: Data show tsunami the killer, elderly the most vulnerable in disaster

SENDAI, Japan / The Mainichi Daily News / April 18, 2011

Over half of those killed in three northeastern Japanese prefectures by the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and tsunami were aged 65 or older.

Over 95 percent of deaths reported in Miyagi Prefecture alone resulted from drowning under the tsunami, fresh data showed Sunday, reports Kyodo.

A school building, which was submerged as a result of a tsunami on March 11, stands in an area of Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Of the 9,112 killed in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima pefectures whose ages are confirmed, 4,990, or 54.8 percent, were aged 65 or older, according to the data Kyodo tallied based on a list of victims by the National Police Agency.

Separate data compiled by the police in Miyagi Prefecture, meanwhile, showed that out of 8,015 deaths confirmed through April 10 in the prefecture, 95.8 percent or 7,676, resulted from drowning.

The figure highlights the difference between the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, where most of the 6,432 victims were crushed to death by collapsed houses.

A tsunami crests the embankment of the Heikawa River in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, before sweeping into the city on March 11. (Mainichi)

Academics say the tally shows that vulnerable people in the already graying communities in the northeastern region were the hardest hit by the disaster.

The overwhelming percentage of deaths by drowning, meanwhile, can also be assumed in the causes of quake-related deaths in Iwate and Fukushima, two other prefectures ravaged by the tsunami, they said.

The ratios of the dead aged 65 or older to the total residents accounted for 54 to 56 percent in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima and were more than double the ratios of residents in the age group in the prefectures, according to pre-disaster surveys in 2010.

"Many elderly probably failed to escape the tsunami on time," said Fumihiko Imamura, a Tohoku University professor specializing in tsunami engineering. "Compared with younger people, the elderly can't run fast and don't have sufficient physical strength."

Imamura said in future city planning, a compact city with employment opportunities and social functions, located away from the coastline, should be considered as the safest residential environment for the elderly.

A photograph taken from a Mainichi helicopter shows devastation in Minamisanriku-cho, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13, 2011, two days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the area. (Mainichi)

Of the remaining casualties in Miyagi, 1.6 percent or 126 died by injuries such as by hemorrhagic shock or polytrauma, 1.0 percent or 83 were fatally burned and 0.3 percent or 25 were crushed to death.