Preparing for Disasters and the Unexpected, by Ann (a long-term resident of Japan)

10 Jul 2020 9:50 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
  • If you've been following the news about Japan at all, you will have seen that we are once again in the midst of a natural disaster. Kyushu is being hit especially hard by torrential rains again and over 60 people have lost their lives and some people are unaccounted for at the moment. Between earthquakes, tsunami, typhoon, volcano eruptions, torrential rainfall and more, Japan sees more than its fair share of disasters. Whether you live in Japan or elsewhere, it is always a good idea to be prepared. This month on our blog, we are featuring an article by a member that first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of the AFWJournal. i hope you find it as useful and informative as I did. 


Preparing for Disasters and the Unexpected

by Ann (a long-term resident of Japan) 

2019, and now the beginning of 2020, have seen more natural + manmade trouble around the world than ever before. My birth country is either completely parched, scorched, battered by golf ball sized hail, or been hit by the worst floods in 50 years. Sometimes a combination. Though many of us focus on Japan as we live here, some of us live elsewhere, and no country is safe from harm. Dealing with a possible disaster, or multiple ones within months, is something that the whole globe has to consider.

I honestly think we cannot escape from disasters, but I even more strongly believe we can mitigate what directly happens to us, our family, and hopefully even our close community. I’d like to do a Q&A with you, and I sincerely hope you’ll take a little time to answer for yourself. I am writing ‘home’ to keep it simple. Please think of this as ‘home + workplace + where you/your family is’ at that time.

1.     What are the POSSIBLE disasters that might hit your home? All of them, maybe ones that haven’t happened before to that area, but that are technically possible.

2.     Go back to your list and put a memo next to the PROBABLE ones. These will have top priority. If it makes you feel better, you could add impossible ones and cross them out. If you want to, you could re-write your list in some kind of frequency order to prioritize things.

  • serious typhoon (certainly several times a year), 

  • super typhoon (probably at least once a year), 

  • absolutely devastating typhoon (once in 20 years – maybe shorter),

  • roof blows off

  • heavy rain that causes serious worry (once a year), 

  • heavy rain that causes possible underfloor flooding (perhaps once a year if we don’t manage things well), 

  • life or death flood

  • landslide

  • volcanic eruption

  • serious earthquake, 

  • tsunami, 

  • wildfire

  • drought (possible but remote at this time) 

  • snow disaster

  • 3.      What are the most likely to occur? How can you plan for them? 

  • For me, typhoons are an absolute certainty, but luckily, we have some days advance warning. There are two vital points: 1. secure the house so it isn’t damaged, and 2. secure the yard so that our things don’t fly and damage someone else’s property. Our house is concrete with a concrete roof, walls and roof in good repair. We cannot do more for them. 

  • Windows mostly have heavy storm shutters that we set two days before the storm is predicted to hit (no struggling with shutters in wind and rain). (You should slide out, check, and set the shutters at least once in spring to make sure they are okay and that you can operate them.) Other windows are protected by film directly on the glass, security bars, and bamboo shades that allow wind through but will stop flying objects. That is the best we can do for the windows. 

  • Anything in the yard that can be picked up by a woman with one hand most certainly needs to be secured, and even heavier objects moved if possible (as in potted plants). Do not forget ‘big’ items like washing poles and bicycles. If you live alone and you are at an absolute loss, before typhoon season starts, get some netting (even at a 100yen shop) and some nylon rope. You can shove all the items together and tie them up with the netting and rope, of course making sure that they are truly tied up and your netting isn’t going to flap about. Do NOT use tarps! (wind catches them and they will flap off and wrap around electricity wires …). 

  • We have nylon sandbag bags, and before typhoon season I will buy about 20 small bags of potting soil. The bagged soil can go inside the nylon bags and be set here and there to block runoff water from going under the house, or from flooding the car parking space. I can protect sapling trees with these, too, so they don’t get torn out of the ground by the wind. Later I can use the soil and store the nylon bags again.

  • 4.     For your Q3 disaster(s), what ‘survival for one week’ things do you need? And for how many days?

  • The last devastating typhoon to hit my city was in 2003. (Google it if you want to be shocked 平成15年台風第14) Apparently my neighborhood had no electricity for a month. Mostly I choose to put that aside and think about ‘super’ typhoons. I always have pet-bottled water but before a typhoon I make sure I have about 80 liters, and about the same of tap water in poly-tanks. Actually, in a regular super-typhoon the water supply won’t be cut, but you never know. We have batteries and battery packs to last up to one week for lights, probably more. Cell phone charging for about 5 days if I’m careful. Gas is okay as we have propane cylinders. Food for at least 1 week, but not things that need to be cold. Cat food for THREE MONTHS! (Cargo ships cannot come to islands in heavy seas.) But basically, we should be ready to have no electricity and therefore internet for 3 or 4 days. Water is okay but food supplies will be patchy for a week or so. And for ‘just in case’ I do have a portable gas stove, the type for cooking nabe hotpots, and about 4 gas canisters for it.

  • 5.     Do you have ‘survival’ things that you literally cannot survive without? That is, joking aside, you may die or get sick if you don’t have them?

  • For us, no. We don’t take medications or have any illnesses. The cats might get sick if we suddenly changed their food, hence 3 months’ worth in stock. Please ask your medical provider(s) about what you can do to prepare. Our scariest thing is possible heatstroke, but luckily it is usually cloudy for days after a typhoon here, so not so hot. Both cars are filled with gasoline before a typhoon so in the worst case, we and the cats would have to stay in a car with the air-conditioner on. We have a small electric power source that would run our small fan for up to 8 hours for just air circulation.

  • 6.     For your Q3 disaster(s), what does ‘evacuate’ mean? What is the timing and where should you go?

  • This is not a question to take lightly! Very tragically, most of the people who passed away in the flood disasters after Typhoon 19 in autumn 2019, left it too late to evacuate.

  • In my city, those who are elderly, weak, or whose houses are in a possible flood area, or those whose houses are not strong enough, are warned by community loudspeaker to evacuate many hours in advance. The warning messages continue. The bridges are closed to traffic many hours in advance, after advance warning about the closures. There are only 3 designated typhoon evacuation centers. As the wind zone approaches, the messages stop – it is too late to go outside and evacuating would be more dangerous than staying put. That is, if residents feel any risk, evacuate very early. If your area is prone to flooding, you should leave as early as you can. Note that typhoon/flood/heavy rain evacuation centers might NOT be your local elementary school or other places used after an earthquake disaster. Ours are not.

  • 7.     Do you have an ‘emergency grab bag’ AND an ‘evacuation kit’?

  • {Huh? They are two different things?} Yes, there are two types in my opinion.

  • The grab bag is small and has things like copies of health insurance cards, hospital patient cards, medicine notebook, memos of family allergies, contact phone numbers, a small amount of money, extra charged prepaid card (Nanaco or the like), a little of your necessary medications, etc. If you have really little kids or often go to clinics, you probably already have most of these things together and then just move them to your regular handbag when you leave the house, and you would have real cards instead of copies. If you are not Japanese, you MUST add in at least a copy of your passport and resident card (alien card). Moms probably have a grab bag of a change of clothes for a baby, too. You will know what you need in your grab bag. Other family members could make one, but they really do have to limit what is inside. Maybe a big Ziplock bag for each person to keep the limit, and if you have kids, make sure one of the kids puts playing cards in their bag. This ‘grab bag’ is what it says – grab it and go! You can stuff it under your bra strap as you dash out the door, if needs be! (Not to upset anyone, but in the 2011 multiple disasters, many people took just their passport and cash and went to Narita. You may have to do that.)

  • The evacuation kit would hold the things you need to get by for some days. You can buy simple ones that are already prepared or check online for what they usually hold – first aid, batteries, chargers, flashlight, etc. Your life might be uncomfortable without those things, but they are not vital like the grab bag is.

  • NOTE: If I had little kids or elderly parents, I would have pin-on name tags to ID them. Pin the tag on their shoulder or somewhere where they can’t take it off by themselves easily. I’d put the ID tags with my grab bag and pin them on as soon as I could – if anyone was lost or separated, they could be found easily. (Add in your mobile phone number.) Super worst case, I’d write my phone number on my baby’s leg with a black marker if I thought a pin was dangerous. My cats have microchips, babies do not. If you are worried about poisoning your baby, then buy a felt-pen type waterproof eyeliner and write on your kids with that!

  • 8.     What is your evacuation plan, and do you have several plans for different times?

  • If everyone is at home at night, it is pretty straightforward, but at the time of the 2011 March 11 disasters, family members were scattered at home/school/work. Do some drills on how to get to the evacuation or meeting place you decide. Especially kids and elderly family members might be reassured if they can actually go to that place several times. I cannot say where or what is best – please decide for your family. I have made my husband promise that he will either stay in our house and put the cats in their carry cages, or if he feels this house is at risk of a tsunami (it most likely isn’t) then to go to a nearby park that is on higher ground, taking the cats with him. If I am out, I will drive/run by that park on my way home for 99% of the possible routes home I would normally have. The way to the park is also the way back to my house for me.

  • 9.     Leave notes!

  • It is good evacuation policy to leave a note on your door, on the outside, for anyone to see. (Yes, looters and thieves will see it too, can’t be helped. Write it in English and hope they can't read it!) You need to list: where you have gone and with who (list names of all members), if it doesn’t freak you out then put your mobile phone number. This information is not only for your family members, it is for rescue staff too. If you have time, put on it “no injured people inside” (中ケガ人いない) or something like that – for the rescue teams. TURN OFF YOUR ELECTRICITY AND GAS!!! Put it on the note “electricity mains off, gas off”. This is also for the rescue teams – electricity can cause fires in both earthquakes and flood disasters. You can write a lot of these notes now, or ask a Japanese person to help you write them, and just keep them with your emergency kit with some gum tape or other strong tape. The time you take sticking something to your door could save someone’s life later. Not joking, not even exaggerating.

  • 10.   Make a list of possible people and phone numbers that you need to contact in the first few days of an emergency. Tell those people how you will try to contact them, being realistic. Your phone might not work if the system is overloaded. Many cities and prefectures have disaster preparation websites where you can register. Check now. The list should be updated a few times a year and be kept in the grab-bag.

  • 11.   This next part is extremely depressing and sensitive, so stop reading now if you are feeling blue. I mean it – it is not nice, so take care ….

  • In the worst-case scenario, someone may be injured/trapped/incapacitated in some way and you can’t take them with you. You will have to make the choice to save your own life or that of other family members. This happened in Tohoku. Indeed, many kids were saved because an expert had told them to run for the hills and to do so alone without thought of others. In that case, if you have time, write on the person you can’t take with black marker – put their full name and your phone number. Write it on their forehead if you can. Emergency rescue people will see it. Put a note on the door that a trapped person is inside and leave the door open, or pin a note where it is very visible. The job of the rescue personnel is to save as many people as possible, quickly. ID on the trapped person will help immensely, and you know your person will be returned to you smoothly. If they are taken to a hospital on the other side of the city, you won’t find them for days without an ID.

  • 12.   Don’t give up on disaster preparation because you think it is troublesome. A lot of people plan a holiday like they were the chief strategist for a Napoleon Bonaparte campaign, but roll their eyes at the thought of disasters. But the comfort, and more likely, safety and well-being of your family members and your pets depends on you. Why can we color coordinate our daily pairs of underwear for a 5 day trip, but balk at even having a grab-bag? And many women I know have a makeup kit with more stuff in it than an evacuation kit – more expensive, too.

  • 13.   Contagious nasties…

  • Until now we’ve only had to think about influenza, etc. and evacuation center planning does plan for the flu (I know because I’ve done evacuation center simulations for my prefecture and I’m an evacuation center volunteer member if the worst comes to pass). Obviously, in 2020 we have a much more serious situation and disaster management staff are carefully drafting new plans for natural disaster + Covid19. We can also think of it by ourselves. Again, I am not a professional so I can’t tell you what to do. For many people in my city, a tsunami will be sure to hit their houses which is a much more immediate and deadly threat than possibly contracting a virus (at first, at any rate).

  • That is all for this time, but if you are totally overwhelmed and are at a loss, here are two things I think you really should do:

  • Make a grab bag (see above)
  • Clean out your entryway/entry hall (genkan) to make sure that in a big earthquake, you’ll be able to escape freely. Coat racks and umbrella stands, etc. will topple over in an earthquake and block the door. Get rid of them, move them, or at the least, secure them. 


A big thanks to Ann for giving me permission to share her article on our blog! It's a great example of the kind of help and support that AFWJ has to offer, and a testament to the high quality of submissions we receive and publish in our Journal. Until next month, take care and stay safe.


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