At least 50 dead and 50 missing as heavy rains continue to lash western Japan

Kyodo, Staff Report

The death toll from heavy rains across a wide swath of western Japan rose to at least 50 by Saturday evening and about another 50 people remained missing, as downpours triggered mudslides and flooding smashed homes and swept away cars.

Evacuation orders or advisories were issued for 4.72 million people at one point due to continued downpours. Nearly 50,000 members of the Self-Defense Forces, police and firefighting services were taking part in searches for people trapped, wounded or dead.

Emergency warnings were lifted by the evening in Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tottori, Okayama, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures but remained in effect in Gifu Prefecture.

Since the downpours began Thursday, the Meteorological Agency has forecast record amounts of rain through Sunday, warning of flooding, mudslides and lightning strikes.

Hiroshima Prefecture was hit the hardest by landslides that claimed 22 lives, while another 18 people died in Ehime Prefecture. Still others lost their lives in Osaka, Shiga, Hyogo, Okayama, Yamaguchi and Fukuoka prefectures.

In August 2014, 77 people died in Hiroshima when torrential rain triggered massive landslides that destroyed homes. But a 71-year-old man there said Saturday, “It was heavier rain than four years ago. I was scared, thinking what would become of me.”

In Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, five people were confirmed dead due to the torrential rain, including people who were swept away in their car. On Nuwa Island, offshore from the prefectural capital of Matsuyama, a woman in her 30s and her two children were killed when a mudslide hit their home.

In Kasaoka, Okayama Prefecture, six workers were buried when a landslide crashed into their factory early Saturday morning. One of the workers was later confirmed dead.

Also in Okayama, a nursing home for the elderly was inundated and about 80 people were temporarily stranded on the second floor, while more than 10 people climbed onto the roofs of their homes as water surged in the prefecture.

At an apartment complex in Hiroshima, about 100 people were stranded from Friday night by flooding in the area. On Saturday, rescue workers transferred them to safety by carrying them through swiftly flowing floodwaters.

In a wide area, from southwestern Japan to western Japan, rivers were swollen and overflowing, and some bridges were washed away, while transportation was disrupted, with shinkansen bullet train services suspended in most parts of western Japan.

The heavy rain also affected business operations, with major manufacturers suspending production and retailers closing stores.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said it had halted operations at its Okayama Prefecture plant as it was unable to procure parts, while Daihatsu Motor Co., a minivehicle making unit of Toyota Motor Corp., said it had suspended production at two plants in Osaka and Kyoto for the same reason.

In Kyoto on Saturday, immediate concerns about flooding had eased somewhat. But with more rain expected Saturday night and early Sunday morning, areas along the riverbank remained on high alert.

“We’re prepared to evacuate if necessary. I’m especially worried about the possibility of a flash flood overshooting the banks,” said Tomoko Ito, 36, who works at a small souvenir stand in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, where authorities were keeping an eye on the raging Katsura River only a few hundred meters away.

But others in Kyoto were hopeful that, with a forecast that the rain would ease off from Sunday, the situation would not be as bad as it was in September 2013, when a flood caused by a typhoon forced thousands to evacuate.

“2013 was really bad. I had friends whose property was damaged. So far, we’ve been lucky, but I think anybody living near the river has got to be nervous because the typhoon season is just really starting,” said Manabu Takeshita, 71, a Kyoto Prefecture resident who was visiting the city.

The government has set up a liaison unit at the crisis management center of the Prime Minister’s Office to gather information.

At a meeting with ministers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directed them to “prioritize lifesaving and send rescue crews without delay,” according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.