HIROSHIMA – Heavy rain on Friday hampered the search for 52 people believed buried alive on the edge of Hiroshima as opposition politicians hounded Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for golfing and relaxing while responding to the disaster.
Rescuers feared the continuing rain could set off further mudslides in the area after a month’s worth of rain fell overnight Wednesday, loosening slopes already saturated by heavy rain over the past few weeks.
The death toll stood at 39 as of Friday evening.
Abe told his relevant Cabinet ministers at the Prime Minister’s office on Friday to “make all-out efforts to rescue residents, recover their lifelines and provide support for them to go back to normal living.”
He also said he intended “to go to the site for inspection as soon as possible,” if the situation at the disaster site permits.
The government set up an emergency task force on Friday morning to handle the response to the mudslides by upgrading a disaster-fighting panel filled with relevant officials.
Keiji Furuya, the disaster management minister, heads the task force.
During is first meeting, Furuya expressed concern that the rescue operations may take a long time. Noting that about 1,700 evacuees may be forced to remain outside their homes for a prolonged time, he urged that efforts be directed to restore residents’ lifelines as soon as possible and provide care for the evacuees in terms of their mental and physical health.
Rescue activities were temporarily halted due to rain that started falling late Thursday. The local meteorological office issued a heavy rain warning at 5 a.m. Friday and warned of more mudslides.
Abe has been criticized by the opposition for playing several rounds of golf on the day of the disaster before breaking off and rushing back to Tokyo.
Critics have also slammed him for returning to his vacation villa afterward.
Among those killed were two brothers, aged 11 and 2, and a firefighter who was engulfed by mud while he was carrying a toddler to safety. The child also perished.
One mudslide victim described the chaos as it unfolded.
“There was a really strange smell, a very raw, earthy smell. When we opened a window to see what was going on, the entire hillside just came down, with a crackling noise, a thundering noise,” one woman told Fuji TV.
She and her husband fled just before their house filled with mud and left huge boulders where they had been sleeping.
About 240 mm (9 inches) of rain had fallen in the area about 3 km from the center of the city in the 24 hours up to Wednesday morning, the Meteorological Agency said. Roughly half of that fell in just an hour.
Residential areas in land-scarce Japan often expand into the mountains, with houses tucked just below steep slopes, leaving them vulnerable to landslides.