YATSUSHIRO (Kyushu) Emergency services in western Japan are “racing against time” to rescue people stranded by devastating floods and landslides that have killed at least 50 people, with more torrential rain forecast.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) yesterday issued its second-highest emergency warning for heavy rain and landslides over vast swathes of the south-west and said “risks are rising” nationwide.
At least 50 deaths have been confirmed in the rains that began early last Saturday, top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said, but the toll is expected to rise, with two more feared dead and more than a dozen reported missing.
“We are racing against time,” said Mr Yutaro Hamasaki, an official in the hardest-hit region of Kumamoto. “We’ve not set any deadline or time to end the operation, but we really need to speed up our search as time is running out. We won’t give up to the end.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was doubling the deployment of rescue personnel, including police and firefighters as well as coast guards and troops, to 80,000.
Rivers overflowing their banks have swept away bridges and turned roads into lakes, making rescue access possible only by raft or helicopter.
At an elementary school in Omuta city, dozens of children and their teachers spent the night sheltering on the upper floor of the building after floodwater inundated the ground level.
“Shoe cupboards on the group floor were swept away and shoes were floating around,” an 11-year-old girl told a local newspaper. “Some children were sobbing because they were worried about not being able to get home.”
Madam Nobuko Murakami, 78, whose house was destroyed by landslides, told local media: “I couldn’t sleep as the sound of the rain was deafening. I have lived here for more than 50 years, but I have never seen such heavy rain.”
Mr Kentaro Oishi, who owns a rafting business in Hitoyoshi city, said emergency services drafted him in to rescue stranded locals.
“I have 20 years of rafting experience, but I never dreamed” of rowing the boat through the city, the veteran paddler said. “I was so scared at first when I saw the water levels rising so rapidly in the river.”
Fourteen of the dead were wheelchair-bound residents of a nursing home who were unable to escape to higher ground as the waters rose.
A rescue worker who searched the facility told NHK: “The ground floor was filled with water and we couldn’t get into it. Some people managed to evacuate to the first floor. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Further complicating evacuation efforts was the fear of spreading the coronavirus. Japan has been relatively lightly affected by the pandemic, with just under 20,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths.
But the need to maintain social distancing has reduced capacity at evacuation shelters, with hundreds of thousands under non-compulsory orders to take refuge.
In Yatsushiro, the authorities converted the local sports gymnasium into a shelter, with families separated by cardboard walls to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to local media, some people were preferring to sleep in their cars rather than risk possible infection at a shelter.
For some business owners already battered by the coronavirus crisis, the natural disaster has compounded their problems.
Mr Yuji Hashimoto, who runs a tourism bureau in the hot spring resort in Yatsushiro, said the “beautiful tourism spot dramatically changed overnight”.
“The damage was beyond our imagination. The disaster is a double whammy as our hot spring resort was struggling to weather the impact of the coronavirus.”
The rain front is expected to linger for several more days, moving towards east Japan.
“Vigilance is required across the nation… the risk level is rising,” warned a JMA official.
Japan is in the middle of its annual rainy season, which frequently unleashes deadly floods and landslides. Climate change is also playing a role because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, increasing the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.