Coronavirus hampers evacuation efforts during Typhoon Haishen

One of the most powerful typhoons in decades has left a trail of destruction as it skirted the southwestern island of Kyushu. Weather officials warned days in advance about the size and strength of Typhoon Haishen and urged people to evacuate earlier than usual. But this year the evacuation procedures are more complicated than usual.

As the typhoon approached, officials from the Meteorological Agency and the Land Ministry both held a series of news conferences urging people not to underestimate its power. More than eight million residents were ordered or advised to evacuate.

People in Kyushu are no strangers to typhoons, and evacuation procedures are well rehearsed. But the spread of the coronavirus has added an extra challenge this year.

With people trying to maintain social distancing in evacuation shelters, the facilities filled up faster than usual.

In Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture, the authorities set up 10 more shelters than usual, but were still overwhelmed by the volume of arrivals. One municipal official said they never imagined that this many people would come.

Across Kyushu and Yamaguchi Prefecture, more than 500 shelters had to turn away latecomers.

Many people chose to avoid shelters altogether, and headed instead to hotels or other accommodations.

One person who booked into a hotel in Nichinan City in Miyazaki Prefecture, said he wouldn’t have felt comfortable in a shelter: “I prefer a hotel room, given the risk of coronavirus infection.”

Another said hotels offer a way to evacuate without worrying about the “three C’s” (closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings).

Weather officials warned that Typhoon Haishen could inflict unprecedented damage. (1:01)

Professor Ushiyama Motoyuki of Shizuoka University studies natural hazards and is an expert on evacuations. He says it is essential for local authorities to let the public know early if there’s a chance they won’t be able to accommodate everyone.

“That way, people have time to find other means of staying safe,” he says. “And the authorities should provide updates on which shelters are crowded and which are not."

Typhoon Haishen crossed waters west of Kyushu from Sunday to Monday. As of Tuesday morning, it had left two people dead and at least 77 injured. Four people in Miyazaki Prefecture are missing after a landslide swept several buildings into a nearby river.