Facility operators have mixed feelings about evacuations, said Hajime Kagiya, a professor of disaster management at Atomi University in Tokyo. “They have to be mindful of the health conditions of the residents as well as choosing a place to evacuate to,” he said. “So they tend to take their time in making the decision to evacuate.”
The Japanese government issues standardized evacuation protocols, but they do not take into account the unique characteristics or terrain in different parts of the country, said Professor Tsukahara of Kyushu University. In rural areas, many small villages are isolated and populated by mostly aging residents, with few local resources to help with disaster planning or, in the event of a crisis, to assist with evacuation or rescue.
In the case of the Senjuen nursing home, Aki Goto, its director, told The Kumamoto Nichinichi Shimbun, a local newspaper, that she had been more concerned about mudslides than flooding. When the waters came, she added, the caregivers could not move quickly enough to move all the residents upstairs.
Six of the workers were on call the night of the floods last weekend, the newspaper reported. That still left each caregiver in charge of more than 10 aging residents, some of whom were unable to walk without help. Even with the aid of local volunteers, they could not bring everyone to safety upstairs as the floodwaters rapidly rose and deluged the ground floor.
According to Shigemitsu Sakoda, 53, the president of Land Earth, a local rafting and outdoor sports company who assisted with the rescue effort at Senjuen, only the caretakers and two local volunteer firefighters were moving residents when Mr. Sakoda arrived to help around noon on Saturday.
“It’s a really tough job for such a small number of people to carry up those who cannot walk to the second floor,” Mr. Sakoda said in a telephone interview. By the time troops from the Japan Self-Defense Forces arrived to rescue the nursing home residents from the roof, some had already died below.
Three years ago, the Japanese government revised a law that requires nursing homes, hospitals, facilities for the disabled and schools located in flood zones to develop evacuation plans and conduct regular drills. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, just over a third of the country’s 68,000 facilities had evacuation plans on record by March of last year.