Good vibrations? COVID quiet time soothes Earth’s seismic shakes

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide led to the longest and most pronounced reduction in human-linked seismic vibrations ever recorded, sharpening scientists’ ability to hear earth’s natural signals and detect earthquakes, a study found on Thursday.

Vibrations travel through the earth like waves, creating seismic noise from earthquakes, volcanoes, wind and rivers as well as human actions such as travel and industry.

In the study, published in the journal Science and conducted using international seismometer networks, scientists found that human-linked earth vibrations dropped by an average of 50% between March and May this year.

“The 2020 seismic noise quiet period is the longest and most prominent global anthropogenic seismic noise reduction on record,” they wrote. The work was co-led by the Royal Observatory of Belgium and five other institutions using data from 268 monitoring stations in 117 countries.

Beginning in China in late January, and followed by Europe and the rest of the world in March to April, researchers saw “a wave of quietening” as worldwide lockdown measures to slow the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Travel and tourism were all but halted, millions of schools and industries closed, and many people were confined to their homes.

The relative quiet allowed scientists to “listen in” in more detail on the earth’s natural vibrations, said Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at Imperial College London who co-led the work.

“It has yielded a new window on the natural seismic signals, and could let us see more clearly than ever what differentiates human and natural noise,” he said.

The study said its findings also showed that seismologists can help establish how long people take to react to the imposition and lifting of lockdown measures.

The largest drops in human-induced vibrations were seen in densely populated areas like Singapore and New York City, but drops were also seen in remote areas like Germany’s Black Forest and Rundu in Namibia. Barbados, where lockdown coincided with the tourist season, saw a 50% drop in seismic noise.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Trump to sign disaster declaration for quake-hit Puerto Rico – U.S. Congress representative

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will sign a major disaster declaration for quake-hit Puerto Rico on Thursday, the island’s nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, wrote in a tweet.

Puerto Rico officials and U.S. legislators have called on Trump to increase federal aid for the island after it was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks that have collapsed hundreds of homes and sent nearly 8,000 residents fleeing to shelters.

Trump declared an emergency on the island after the Jan. 7 earthquake and his declaration of a major disaster would give Puerto Rico access to additional relief resources.

Gonzalez on Wednesday said Puerto Rico would be given an additional $8.2 billion in delayed disaster-aid to fund the U.S. territory’s recovery from 2017 hurricanes.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

In quake-hit Puerto Rico even the bees are fleeing their homes

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Puerto Rican bees are abandoning hives as weeks of earthquakes disrupt colonies, experts said, raising concerns that a subspecies seen as a possible solution to the global bee crisis could take another hit after being decimated by hurricanes in 2017.

Bees have deserted up to 25% of hives in towns like Guayanilla in southern Puerto Rico after hundreds of tremors and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the area, said Hermes Conde, director of the island’s Eastern Apiculture School. The quakes have shifted the position of many hives, confused returning bees and caused destruction inside the wooden boxes, he said.

They have also disrupted beekeepers’ normal feeding of hives during winter months as farmers recover from quakes that collapsed hundreds of homes and caused at least one death. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are sleeping outdoors, fearful their houses could collapse in another big aftershock.

As the U.S. territory seeks a disaster declaration from President Donald Trump to increase relief resources, the island’s beekeepers are appealing for U.S. donations of “protein patties” and other bee food to save their hives.

“Bees are looking for calmer areas, fleeing all the movement in the earthquake zone,” said Conde, who has lost 10 of his 50 hives in Guayanilla and fears more may go if quakes continue.

Puerto Rico’s hardy, productive bees are the descendants of Africanized bees. They are seen as a possible substitute for western honey bees that have died off in unprecedented numbers due to so-called colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Scientists say Puerto Rico’s bees are less susceptible to parasites blamed for CCD, a phenomenon which has caused economic losses worldwide in crops that depend on western honey bees for pollination.

Around 85% of Puerto Rico’s bees were wiped out by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people on the Caribbean island. The bee population has since recovered to around 60% of its former size, according to Conde.

Bee expert Tugrul Giray, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said the principal reason bees were abandoning hives was likely a lack of food as beekeepers tended to other priorities in their lives.

But he said bees hated vibration, and the repeated tremors and earthquakes since Dec. 28 had caused them to become less docile and leave nests.

“Puerto Rico’s beekeepers need special help right now,” said Giray, warning locals to take care when encountering the island’s stressed-out bees.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

Puerto Rico to be given access to $8.2 billion in blocked disaster aid funding: Politico

(Reuters) – Puerto Rico will be allowed access to $8.2 billion in blocked disaster aid funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Politico reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The U.S. territory has undergone hundreds of earthquakes and aftershocks since Dec. 28 that have caused structural damage to thousands of buildings and homes.

The quakes have worsened Puerto Rico’s woes as it continues to recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people, and goes through a bankruptcy process.

“Now that a full financial monitoring team is assembled and active, we can move forward with confidence that these disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most,” the Politico report quoted an unnamed HUD official as saying.

U.S. President Donald Trump suggested in July last year that Puerto Rico could not be trusted to manage federal aid, saying it was “in the hands of incompetent people and very corrupt people.”

Access to the funds after all may come as a relief for Puerto Rico after rating agency Moody’s Investors Service said on Tuesday that recent earthquakes posed a setback for the Caribbean island in terms of its economic recovery and ability to retain residents and businesses.

The development followed a letter http://bit.ly/2NtywlS on Tuesday in which Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and several other Senate Democrats asked the Trump administration to approve full aid to Puerto Rico.

The HUD did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment outside regular working hours.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Most Puerto Ricans without power, many sleep outdoors after quakes

By Ricardo Ortiz

GUANICA, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – More than half of Puerto Rico’s 3 million people remained without power on Wednesday and thousands slept outdoors after earthquakes toppled homes on the Caribbean island and raised fears more could collapse.

Tuesday’s quakes, including the most powerful one to strike the U.S. territory in 102 years, killed at least one person and destroyed or damaged about 300 homes. A state of emergency was declared.

The south of the island was hardest hit, dozens of homes collapsing in towns like Yauco, Guanica and Guayanilla during a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and 5.6 aftershock.

Tremors shook the island on Wednesday and thousands slept outdoors or in their cars, fearful their homes would collapse in the event of another major event.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, everything fell on top of us,” said Josefina Pacheco who ran out onto the street during the quakes. “It’s really hard to see so many houses around you on the ground.”

Power was not expected to be restored to the whole island until the weekend after quakes knocked out its main generating facility, the Costa Sur plant, and damaged other energy infrastructure.

It will take at least a year to repair Costa Sur, which up until Tuesday supplied about a quarter of Puerto Rico’s power, the head of the AEE electricity agency, Jose Ortiz, told El Nuevo Dia newspaper.

About 600,000 of the island’s 1.5 million customers had power on Wednesday, up from 100,000 on Tuesday night, and the island was generating 955 megawatts of electricity, well short of the 2,300 megawatts it needed, AEE said on Twitter.

The power outages brought back memories of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, when Puerto Ricans endured lengthy blackouts following a disaster that killed nearly 3,000 people.

On Wednesday, about 24% of the population still had no running water and more than 2,200 people left homeless had taken refuge in government shelters, said Carlos Acevedo, commissioner of disaster agency NMEAD.

In Guanica, supermarket owner Santo Manuel Ruiz Pietri began cleaning up collapsed shelves and surveying structural damage to his building.

“It was nearly complete devastation at our Guanica location, inside and outside,” said Ruiz Pietri, estimating the damage to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY

The earthquakes followed a series of natural and man-made disasters to afflict the U.S. territory in recent years. The island is also going through bankruptcy and its former governor resigned amid a political scandal and massive street protests last year.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared an emergency in Puerto Rico and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief with Puerto Rican officials.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the island to ensure hospitals had funding to meet needs.

More than 500 tremors occurred in the south of the island between Dec. 28 and Tuesday, including 32 greater than magnitude 4.

The 6.4 magnitude quake on Tuesday morning was the most powerful to hit Puerto Rico since 1918, when a 7.3 magnitude quake and tsunami killed 116 people, according to the Puerto Rican seismology institute, Red Sismica.

Puerto Rico is accustomed to hurricanes, but powerful quakes are rare.

(Reporting by Ricardo Ortiz, Luis Valentin Ortiz, Marco Bello, Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay; Editing by Richard Chang, Robert Birsel)

Puerto Rico declares emergency, activates National Guard after earthquakes

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Tuesday after a series of earthquakes including one of magnitude 6.4 struck the Caribbean island.

The temblors killed at least one person, knocked out power across much of the island and caused significant damage, authorities and media reported.

Vazquez said all public sector offices except for emergency services would remain closed on Tuesday while emergency plans were implemented. The emergency order and activation of the National Guard were later published on an official government website.

The island has been rocked by a series of quakes in recent days, including a 5.8-magnitude temblor on Monday that damaged a few homes on the southern coast.

The U.S. territory is still recovering from a pair of devastating 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people and destroyed significant infrastructure across an island working through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Vazquez, who assumed office in August after Ricardo Rossello stepped down in the face of massive street protests, tweeted pleas for people to remain calm.

“We want everyone to be safe. That is why all work in the public sectors has been suspended today, so that you can be with your family, implementing your emergency plans,” Vazquez tweeted.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported a small tsunami measuring around 20 centimeters (7.9 inches).

The first and biggest quake on Tuesday, of magnitude 6.4, struck at a depth of 10.0 km (six miles) at 4:24 am (0824 GMT) near Ponce on the island’s southern coast, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

A 73-year-old died there after a wall fell on him, newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported.

Witnesses on social media described the quake as “super strong” and lasting up to 30 seconds. It was followed by a number of hefty aftershocks including one measuring 5.8.

The impact along the country’s southern coast appeared significant.

Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Chief Executive Jose Ortiz said its Central Costa Sur power plant was damaged, and the utility was checking other substations on the island.

PREPA had cut off power on safety grounds and hoped to reconnect supplies as soon as possible, it said on Twitter.

The quake severely damaged the Immaculate Conception church in Guayanilla, leaving about half of it standing and surrounded by piles of rubble, according to video posted by Wapa TV. A picture published by El Nuevo Dia showed people removing artifacts.

At least eight homes collapsed in Yauco, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Mayor Angel Torres. Wapa TV video showed one home in Yauco flattened, its roof intact atop debris and slanting until it touched the ground.

The international airport in Carolina, just east of San Juan, continued normal service with the help of power generators, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Jorge Hernandez, chief executive of Aerostar Airport Holdings.

In the town of Guanica, several buildings collapsed. Further east in Maunabo, video on social media showed people evacuating to higher ground following the tsunami warning.

“Persons along coastal areas near the earthquake should be observant and exercise normal caution, otherwise no action is required,” the PTWC said in its warning.

Monday’s quake off southern Puerto Rico knocked several houses off their supporting pillars in Guanica and Guayanilla, crushing vehicles beneath them.

That quake also destroyed the Window of the Caribbean, a rock formation on a beach that had been a tourist attraction, but there were no reports of injuries.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

California Earthquakes, many aftershocks jolt the San Fransisco area this week

The San Andreas Fault line. By Kate Barton, David Howell, and Joe Vigil -

By Kami Klein

A series of earthquakes have been hitting California in the last few days.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the quakes began Monday at 10:33 p.m., when a magnitude 4.5 temblor rattled out of the suburbs of Contra Costa County, in the East Bay about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. The USGS reported at least 26 aftershocks following the tremor, Then, on Tuesday at 12:42 p.m., a magnitude 4.7 quake struck in the remote mountains of San Benito County. No major structural damage was reported.

On Tuesday evening another earthquake this one rated at 3.4 also struck the Pleasant Hill area. The quake was recorded at 7:11 p.m. pacific, Tuesday, Oct. 15 and was centered under Pleasant Hill at a depth of 9 miles, the USGS reported.

Monday’s quake was the latest reminder that seismic forces put the East Bay at high risk of a major earthquake, including from the dangerous Hayward Fault, which runs along heavily populated areas. The Los Angeles Times also reported that the earthquakes struck on an unusual section of San Andreas fault known for ‘creeping’, a series of smaller earthquakes that could lead to larger ones along the fault line.

“This is the 10th earthquake larger than magnitude 4 in the last 20 years in this area” within a radius of about six miles from Tuesday’s epicenter said Keith Knudsen, USGS geologist and deputy director of the agency’s Earthquake Science Center.

In 2008 the USGS created “The Great ShakeOut” scenario to warn communities to prepare the bay area for larger quakes. This scenario was based on a potential magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault— approximately 5,000 times larger than the magnitude 5.4 earthquake that shook southern California on July 29, 2008. It’s not a matter of if an earthquake of this size will happen—but when.

Dr. Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey led a group of over 300 scientists, engineers, and others to study the likely consequences of this potential earthquake in great detail. The result is the ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario, which was also the basis of a statewide emergency response exercise, Golden Guardian 2008.

In an earthquake of this size, the shaking will last for nearly two minutes. The strongest shaking will occur near the fault (in the projected earthquake, the Coachella Valley, Inland Empire and Antelope Valley). Pockets of strong shaking will form away from the fault where sediments trap the waves (in the projected earthquake, it would occur in the San Gabriel Valley and in East Los Angeles).
Such an earthquake will cause unprecedented damage to Southern California—greatly dwarfing the massive damage that occurred in Northridge’s 6.7-magnitude earthquake in 1994. In summary, the ShakeOut Scenario estimates this earthquake will cause over 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damage and other losses, and severe, long-lasting disruption.

Shaken communities take stock of damage after Southern California quakes

A house left destroyed by a powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake, triggered by a 6.4 the previous day, is seen at night near the epicenter in Trona, California, U.S., July 6, 2019. REUTERS/David McNew

By Alan Devall

RIDGECREST, Calif. (Reuters) – High desert communities in Southern California on Saturday assessed damage and braced for potentially dangerous aftershocks from a major earthquake that shook buildings, ruptured gas lines and sparked fires near the remote epicenter of the second temblor in as many days.

A house is left destroyed by an earthquake, triggered by a previous day quake, near the epicenter in Trona, California, U.S., July 6, 2019. REUTERS/David McNew

A house is left destroyed by an earthquake, triggered by a previous day quake, near the epicenter in Trona, California, U.S., July 6, 2019. REUTERS/David McNew

The powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake rocked the Mojave Desert town of Ridgecrest south of Death Valley National Park as darkness fell on Friday, jolting the area with eight times more force than a 6.4 quake that struck the same area 34 hours earlier.

California Governor Gavin Newsom placed the state Office of Emergency Services (OES) on its highest alert and requested federal assistance.

He told a news conference in Ridgecrest on Saturday that he had just got off a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking a presidential emergency declaration.

“I have full confidence that the president will be forthcoming, in immediate terms, with the formal declaration,” Newsom said, flanked by first responders.

Cracks emerge on a road after an earthquake broke in Trona, California, U.S., in this photo from the USGS posted on July 6, 2019. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

Cracks emerge on a road after an earthquake broke in Trona, California, U.S., in this photo from the USGS posted on July 6, 2019. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

There were several minor to moderate injuries, OES Director Mark Ghilarducci told reporters.

“No reports of any fatalities, so I think we’re very lucky there,” he said.

There were reports of building fires, mostly as a result of gas leaks or gas-line breaks, Ghilarducci said.

State officials said all roads damaged by the quakes had been repaired and reopened.

Violent shaking also caused water-main breaks and knocked out power and communications to parts of Ridgecrest, home to about 27,000 people some 125 miles (200 km) northeast of Los Angeles.

Officials warned there was sure to be a significant number of aftershocks, including possible powerful ones, and advised residents to ensure they had necessary supplies.

“I’ve said this ad nauseam: be prepared for the worst,” said Newsom, who on Saturday met victims in the hospital and visited a hardware store where the earthquake hurled products from shelves and left ceiling tiles scattered across the aisles.

Standing outside her damaged home in Ridgecrest, life-long resident Sierra Wood said it was heartbreaking and scary.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” she said. “I mean – they say that it’s happened and you’ve heard about it. But once you’re in it, it’s completely different, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying.”

Her husband, Keith Wood, said the aftershocks were grueling.

“It’s like when, when do we get a break from it?” he said. “When is enough enough? Mother Nature has had her way. Give us a break now, OK?”

Evacuees leave a fire station with their belongings after an earthquake near Trona, California, U.S. July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Evacuees leave a fire station with their belongings after an earthquake near Trona, California, U.S. July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

The sprawling U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake just northwest of Ridgecrest was evacuated of all non-essential personnel following the quake.

The facility, which at more than 1.1 million acres (445,000 hectares) is larger than the state of Rhode Island, reported no injuries. Authorities were assessing any damage to buildings or other infrastructure, according to a post on the base’s Facebook page.

MORE TO COME

Friday’s earthquake was widely felt across Southern California, including greater Los Angeles, where shaking in some areas lasted about 40 seconds. Low-level rumbling extended as far north as the San Francisco Bay area and beyond to Reno, Nevada, and as far east as Phoenix, Arizona.

Seismologists said the initial quake on Thursday, and scores of smaller ones that followed it, proved to be foreshocks to Friday’s larger temblor, which now ranks as Southern California’s most powerful since a 7.1 quake that struck near a U.S. Marine Corps base in the Mojave Desert in 1999.

The U.S. Geological Survey said Friday’s quake was immediately followed by at least 16 aftershocks of magnitude 4 or greater and warned of a 50 percent chance of another magnitude 6 quake in the coming days. Geologists put the chance of another magnitude 7 tremor at 10 percent over the next week.

There were hundreds of aftershocks of 2.5 magnitude or greater in the area surrounding the epicenter, according to USGS data.

Victor Abdullatif was helping clean up broken bottles and other debris inside his father’s liquor store, the Eastridge Market, which sustained damage to its ceiling, and found the periodic aftershocks unnerving.

“They’re still scary because you almost don’t know, ‘Is this going to be a full earthquake?’ You have to kind of have faith that it’s just an aftershock,” he told Reuters.

The last major destructive quake to hit Southern California was the 6.7 magnitude Northridge quake in 1994, which struck a densely populated area of Los Angeles. It killed 57 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage.

The comparatively limited damage from Friday’s quake, which packed greater force than the Northridge event, was a function of its location in a remote, less developed area.

Its ground motion, however, startled seismically jaded Southern Californians over a wide region.

Pools in Los Angeles sloshed wildly, and TV cameras at Dodger Stadium were shaking as they filmed the night Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

A television anchorwoman ducked out of sight during a local newscast as shouts of “get under a desk” were heard in the background.

(Reporting by Alan Devall; Additional reporting by Bill Tarrant, Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis, Joseph Ax and Keith Coffman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Toby Chopra, Will Dunham and David Gregorio)

Alert level raised for Hawaii volcano due to rumbles, quakes

FILE PHOTO: The Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii is shown in this March 25, 1984 handout photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, and released to Reuters on June 19, 2014. U.S. Geological Survey/Handout via Reuters

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – The Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii has been hit by at least 50 small earthquakes since October of last year, scientists said on Tuesday, prompting U.S. geologists to raise its alert level to yellow.

An eruption of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, did not appear to be imminent. The increased seismic activity indicated a shift in the “shallow magma storage system” under the mountain, the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO) said in an advisory.

“As has happened before, it is possible that current low-level unrest will continue and vary in intensity for many months, or even years without an eruption,” the observatory said. “It is also possible that the current unrest is an early precursor to an eventual eruption. At this time, we cannot determine which of these possibilities is more likely.”

Yellow is the second level on the Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s color-coded alert chart, above green, which is used to indicate “background, non-eruptive state.” Orange signifies a volcano exhibiting “heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.” The highest alert level, red, indicates that an eruption is imminent.

“HVO expects that days or weeks prior to an eruption, monitoring instruments will detect signs of an increased potential for eruption,” the observatory said. “However, it is also possible that the time frame to eruption could be shorter – hours to days. All communities on the flanks of the volcano should be prepared.”

The last episode of volcanic activity in Hawaii was a destructive eruption of lava last summer from a series of fissures that opened at the foot of Kilauea Volcano, also on the Big Island.

Kilauea spewed rivers of molten rock that swallowed hundreds of homes before creeping several miles (km) to the ocean, ultimately engulfing two seaside housing developments there.

The property losses from the May-to-August event marked the most destructive eruption event of Kilauea or any other volcano in Hawaii’s recorded history.

Mauna Loa, which takes up more than half of the Big Island, and rises 13,679 feet (4,169 meters) above the Pacific Ocean, last erupted in March and April of 1984, sending a flow of lava within 5 miles (8.05 km) of the city of Hilo.

The volcano has produced voluminous flows of lava that have reached the ocean at least eight times since 1868, and twice its eruptions have destroyed villages, in 1926 and 1950.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

In quake-prone Japan, attention shifts to flood risks as heavy rains increase

FILE PHOTO: The staff of metropolitan outer floodway management office looks around a pressure-adjusting water tank, part of an underground water discharge tunnel which was constructed to protect Tokyo and its suburb areas against floodwaters and overflow of the city's major waterways and rivers during heavy rain and typhoon seasons, at the facility in Kasukabe, north of Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese have long been conditioned to prepare for earthquakes, but recent powerful typhoons and sudden, heavy rains have brought to the forefront another kind of disaster: flooding.

Experts warn that thousands could die and as many as 5 million people would need to be evacuated if massive dikes and levees in low-lying eastern Tokyo are overwhelmed by surging floodwaters.

The cities of Osaka and Nagoya also face flood risks, experts say, amid an increase in sudden heavy rainfall across the country in recent years, a symptom linked to global warming.

“Japan’s major metropolitan areas are, in a way, in a state of national crisis,” said Toshitaka Katada, a professor of disaster engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In July, parts of western Japan were deluged with more than 1,000 millimeters (39 inches) of torrential rain. Gushing water broke levees and landslides destroyed houses, killing more than 200 people in the country’s worst weather disaster in 36 years.

“If this happened to Tokyo, the city would suffer catastrophic damage,” said Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, director of the Japan Riverfront Research Center and author of the book “Capital Submerged,” which urges steps to protect the city, which will host the 2020 Olympics and Rugby World Cup games next year.

Particularly vulnerable are the 1.5 million people who live below sea level in Tokyo, near the Arakawa River, which runs through the eastern part of the city.

In June, the Japan Society of Civil Engineers estimated that massive flooding in the area would kill more than 2,000 people and cause 62 trillion yen ($550 billion) in damage.

Experts could not say how likely that scenario was. But in recent years, the government has bolstered the city’s water defenses by building dams, reservoirs and levees.

But the pace of construction is too slow, said Satoshi Fujii, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is known for pushing big infrastructure projects.

“They need to be taken care of as soon as possible,” he told Reuters.

John Coates, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Games, said the city should “take into account the potential for some of these disasters that seem to beset your country.”

In tacit acknowledgement that more needs to be done, the transport ministry late last month asked the finance ministry for 527 billion yen for levee reinforcement and evacuation preparation in next year’s budget. That’s a third more than the current year.

SURROUNDED BY WATER

Tokyo was last hit by major flooding in 1947, when Typhoon Kathleen inundated large swaths of the city and killed more than 1,000 people across Japan.

A survivor from that disaster, 82-year-old Eikyu Nakagawa, recalled living on the roof of his one-story house with his father for three weeks, surrounded by water. He remembered a pregnant woman who had taken refuge in a two-story house next door.

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“The baby could come any minute, but we could not bring a midwife to her or take her to a doctor,” he said. “I was just a kid, but I lost sleep worrying that she might die.”

A similar disaster today would be much worse, Nakagawa predicted, because the area around his house in Tokyo’s eastern Katsushika ward, once surrounded by rice paddies, is now packed with buildings.

“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “Now it’s so crowded with houses. Little can be done if water comes.”

Intense rainfall is on the upswing across Japan. Downpours of more than 80 millimeters in an hour happened 18 times a year on average over the 10 years through 2017, up from 11 times between 1976-85.

Warming global temperatures contribute to these bouts of extreme weather, scientists say.

“Higher ocean temperatures cause more moisture to get sucked up into the air,” said University of Tokyo’s Katada. “That means a very large amount of rain falling at once, and typhoons are more likely to grow stronger.”

Just last week, western Japan was battered by Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in 25 years, which killed at least 13 people and inundating the region’s biggest international airport.

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo's Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo’s Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

EVACUATION NIGHTMARE

In late August, five low-lying wards in Tokyo jointly unveiled hazard maps outlining areas at high risk of flooding, and warned that up to 2.5 million residents may need to evacuate in case of a major disaster.

The maps, which will be available to residents online and via hard copy, show how deep floodwater would likely be for each area, and how long each area would remain underwater.

But such maps were largely ignored during the deadly flooding in western Japan in July.

If a disaster hits during weekday working hours, the number of evacuees could swell to 5 million, including those from neighboring wards, says Tsuchiya – a logistical nightmare. Tokyo prefecture has grown to 14 million people, with millions more in surrounding areas.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has called for a new ministry that would focus on disaster prevention and recovery. Currently that is overseen by the Cabinet Office, which handles other disparate tasks such as laying out basic fiscal policy and nurturing technological innovation.

Companies also are waking up to the danger of floods, said Tomohisa Sashida, senior principal consultant at Tokio Marine & Nichido Risk Consulting.

“We have been often approached for quake-related business continuity plans.” he said. “But now they realize they need to keep flood risks in mind and flood-related consultations are certainly on the rise.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Kwiyeon Ha; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle)