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Editorial: Typhoon 21 exposed vulnerability of offshore airport to natural disaster

  • September 6, 2018
  • , The Japan News , 8:27 p.m.
  • English Press

Furious wind and rain and a storm surge sent the airport — an important piece of infrastructure — into functional paralysis within a short space of time. It is necessary to examine once again the preparedness for natural disasters.


Typhoon No. 21 passed from south to north through the Shikoku and Kinki regions, leaving more than 10 people dead, including people who were struck by a collapsing building or fell, and many others injured. Among the typhoons that have come close to the Japanese archipelago so far this year, the latest storm was the most powerful, coming ashore with a force that was “very strong (meaning a maximum wind speed ranging from 44 meters per second to less than 54 meters per second)” for the first time in 25 years.


The enormous damage wrought on Kansai Airport, which sits offshore, was shocking.


A record-high storm surge was generated in Osaka Bay, causing one of the airport’s runways and an airplane parking area to be submerged. The bridge connecting the airport island with the mainland was damaged as a tanker crashed into it, believed to have been blown by the strong wind, closing the bridge to traffic. The violent wind blowing at the time set a new record for maximum instantaneous wind speed.


Due to the unprecedented submergence, the airport was closed, with many users and staff stranded in terminal buildings on what became a cut-off island. Rescue operations were conducted the next morning with vessels and buses.


It has not been fixed when airport operations will be resumed. This is the most serious situation for the airport since its opening in 1994.


About 28.7 million people used Kansai Airport in fiscal 2017, making it one of Japan’s largest international hub airports, next to Haneda and Narita. Kansai Airport is a gateway for foreign visitors to Japan, whose numbers are growing sharply, while it also acts as a transport terminal for international freight such as electronic parts and components.


Advance steps pay off


Should the closure be prolonged, economic damage will inevitably spread. It is necessary to strive for a quick recovery.

It has been pointed out that Kansai Airport has vulnerabilities peculiar to an offshore airport, such as damage from submergence and land subsidence.


In 2004, part of a road surrounding a runway was hollowed out by a storm surge during a typhoon. By taking such measures afterward as having the embankment raised, the airport was assumed to be capable of coping with “high waves that could occur only once in 50 years.” Can the airport authorities concerned win public understanding by explaining that the tide level was beyond expectation?


Such airports as Haneda and Chubu are also located by the sea or offshore. Measures against a storm surge must be examined quickly.


JR West and some other private railways in the Kansai region carried out a “planned suspension of train service,” through which the train operators notified users on the preceding day that service would be suspended, a step based on the lessons of the earthquake that hit the northern part of Osaka in June and left many commuters and others unable to go to work or return home.


Many companies had instructed their employees, at an early stage prior to the typhoon’s approach, to stay home, while department stores, supermarkets and tourist facilities decided to temporarily close their outlets. On the day when train services were suspended, there was no marked confusion as a result. These measures may have generated such effects as having local residents share an awareness of danger and refrain from going out when it was not essential.


Some believe it would be difficult to implement similar measures in the Tokyo metropolitan area, whose railway networks are more complicated and used by an enormous number of people. Discussion regarding the merits and adverse effects of such measures should be carefully advanced.

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