2020 Tokyo Olympics sailing venue would be an evacuation nightmare if a tsunami struck, says Japanese disaster expert

Julian Ryall
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2020 Tokyo Olympics sailing venue would be an evacuation nightmare if a tsunami struck, says Japanese disaster expert

Athletes taking part in sailing races during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and thousands of spectators could be killed or injured if an offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that hits the venue, according to one of Japan’s foremost crisis management experts.

Nobuaki Shimizu, a professor at Aichi Prefectural University, told local media that emergency routes away from the coast were inadequate, particularly for the very young, seniors and people using wheelchairs.

An inspection for an emergency evacuation route revealed it was as challenging as “mountain climbing”, the professor told the Mainichi newspaper.

Shimizu estimated it would take thousands of spectators “at least one hour” to reach the designated evacuation point for the area, and that “buildings along the route could collapse due to a quake”.

The sailing events are expected to be held at Shonan Port, about 60km south of central Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture.

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A simulation drawn up by a private company on behalf of the prefectural government in 2017 indicated that a magnitude-8.2 earthquake – about the same size as the 1923 tremor that caused widespread destruction in Tokyo and Yokohama – could trigger a major tsunami.

The simulation showed it would take as little as 90 seconds between an earthquake occurring and a tsunami reaching the shore. A tsunami of as little as 30cm “would cause casualties”, the report noted, while a tsunami of 1m would result in a 100-per-cent death rate.

The earthquake that struck northeast Japan in March 2011 triggered a tsunami that reached estimated heights above 40m and travelled up to 10km inland.

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With memories of the devastation caused by that disaster still fresh – and seismologists warning that the Kanto region is overdue a major quake – organisers of the sailing events agreed in January to reduce the number of spectators from a maximum of 5,000 to 3,300, according to national broadcaster NHK.

The number of people in the area during events will nevertheless still come to around 5,000 when athletes, support staff, games officials, media and security staff are included.

In a statement, officials of the organising committee said, “Tokyo 2020 acknowledges the tsunami impact simulation exercise that was carried out by the Kanagawa Prefectural authorities, and has formulated an evacuation plan to address the scenarios they simulated.

“Taking into account the level of assumed damage caused by any such tsunami, we have estimated the number of people that could safely be evacuated, and we have accordingly reduced the maximum capacity of the venue from the 7,000-plus people included in our original bid to 5,700.

“Excluding athletes, staff and media representatives, the spectator capacity has been reduced to 3,300 people,” it added. “As a result of this verification exercise, we have established that all 5,700 people would be able to evacuate to six designated facilities in the vicinity of the venue itself and in surrounding hilly areas.

“We are working on formulating safety procedures through the training and education of staff in the safe evacuation of those affected in any such occurrence, and by establishing evacuation procedures in cooperation with local authorities and other related parties.

“Based on the above, we will continue to share all relevant event information and any necessary alerts and updates with spectators during the Games.”

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