LEADING ARTICLE: Kobe: why did so few die?

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The Independent Online
As the fires that have raged across Kobe are dampened down, the questions begin. Although some two thousand people have lost their lives, the first and most important question must be one that may sound callous. Why did so few people die?

True, recriminations are already hanging in the air: why was there no warning? Why were the emergency services not better prepared? All this is part of a natural human instinct to try to make such events comprehensible by apportioning responsibility or assuming human failure. It is easier to blame the rescue services than to face the unpalatable truth that if millions of people crowd into conurbations sited in a major earthquake zone, then we ought to expect deaths by the hundred thousand. But the f actis that there are lessons to be learnt for the next earthquake if we can understand why so few died during this one.

Again it might seem callous to say so, but the city of Kobe was lucky. The earthquake struck at 5.46am, when most people were still asleep and the roads and railways were empty. Had it happened a couple of hours later, the death toll would have been muchhigher.

But other events were not a matter of luck. The buildings that suffered most damage were the older, wood-framed houses with heavy tiled roofs. Modern high-rise buildings, which had been designed to sway and flex with the movement of the earth, were unscathed.

The thing to fear when an earthquake hits, however, is not so much being buried in the rubble of one's home; historically, the real killer has been fire. Firestorms took most of the lives in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, where up to 140,000 died. Fire, too, was chiefly responsible for the death toll in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It is disturbing, then, to see how quickly a conflagration threatened to take hold in the aftermath of the Kobe quake.

Most Japanese citizens already take simple actions to minimise the risk of fire. They are enjoined, for example, to turn the gas off at the mains every time they leave home, to avoid explosions in blocks of flats if pipes rupture after an earthquake. Butthis is not enough. More important and more difficult in a crowded, urbanised country such as Japan is the provision of extensive open spaces in the cities to act as firebreaks and as convenient evacuation points.

An earthquake is an elemental force the onset of which cannot be accurately predicted; nor can its magnitude be mitigated. The best weapons against it are mundane and bureaucratic actions: observing the building regulations, creating more green spaces and planning how to get people out.