OSAKA/TOKYO/MIHARA, HIROSHIMA PREF. - Eighty-one people have died and over 50 remain missing, as torrential rains continued to pound parts of western and central Japan on Sunday.
Rescuers expanded their search for people missing and stranded in flooding and landslides, as evacuation orders or advisories remain in effect for 4.3 million people in 23 prefectures from central to southwestern Japan. Over 30,000 people were staying at evacuation centers as of 3 p.m. Sunday, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
Many people are also believed to be stranded in their homes due to a lack of access roads because of flooding. As damage in affected areas is unfolding, the number of casualties is expected to rise as many landslides were not immediately confirmed by local authorities.
The Meteorological Agency issued emergency warnings for heavy rains in Ehime and Kochi prefectures early Sunday, while Gifu Prefecture also remains on alert.
In Okayama Prefecture, one of the hardest-hit areas, more than 1,000 people trapped on the roofs of buildings submerged by floods following the bursting of three dikes on nearby Oda River were rescued by boats or helicopters.
In the Mabicho district, about 1,200 hectares, or one third of the district, was submerged. About 4,600 homes were inundated in the area.
The land ministry plans to mobilize around 20 pump trucks around the clock to drain the inundated area but it is likely to take about two weeks to complete the drainage operation.
Since the downpour began Thursday, when the weather agency forecast record amounts of rain through Sunday, 37 people have died in Hiroshima, 20 in Ehime and 10 in Okayama. The 14 other casualties were from Yamaguchi, Kyoto, Gifu, Shiga, Hyogo, Kochi and Fukuoka prefectures.
At a meeting of an emergency center the government set up Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for all-out efforts for search and rescue.”Rescue efforts are a battle with time,”Abe told reporters. “The rescue teams are doing their utmost.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said 54,000 personnel from the police, fire departments, the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard have been mobilized for rescue work.
Suga said the whereabouts of 92 people, mostly in southern parts of Hiroshima Prefecture, are unknown.
More than 100 reports of casualties had been received, such as cars being swept away, he said. Some 40 helicopters have been flying rescue missions. The weather agency said three hours of rainfall in one area in Kochi Prefecture reached an accumulated 26.3 centimeters (10.4 inches), the highest since such records started in 1976.
The assessment of casualties has been difficult because of the huge area affected by the rainfall, flooding and landslides. Authorities warned landslides could strike even after rain subsides as the calamity shaped up to be potentially the worst in decades.
A residential area in Okayama Prefecture was covered with muddy water that was spreading like a huge lake. Some people fled to rooftops and balconies and waved furiously at hovering rescue helicopters. Military paddle boats were also being used to take people to dry land.
Officials in the prefecture said three people had died, six others were missing and seven were injured, one of them seriously. Six homes were destroyed, and nearly 500 were flooded. Evacuation orders or advisories were issued to more than 910,000 people, the prefecture said in a statement.
Several people were killed in a landslide in Hiroshima and more bodies were retrieved from collapsed housing in the ancient capital of Kyoto, both areas where the rainfall was heavy in the past few days.
In the town of Mihara, in southern Hiroshima Prefecture, a temporary let-up in rain laid bare the devastation wrought by the downpours.
Roads were transformed into muddy flowing rivers, with dirt piled up on either side and stranded cars barely withstanding the current flowing around their wheels.
“The area became an ocean,” said 82-year-old Nobue Kakumoto, a longtime resident. “I’m worried because I have no idea how long it will stay like this.”
Work crews could be seen elsewhere trying to clear multiple small landslides that coated roads in mud, rendering them virtually impassable.
“We are carrying out rescue operations around the clock,” said Yoshihide Fujitani, a disaster management official in Hiroshima Prefecture.
“We are also looking after evacuees and restoring lifeline infrastructure like water and gas,” he added. “We are doing our best.”
In Ehime Prefecture, a woman was found dead on the second floor of a home that had been buried in a landslide. Also in Ehime, two elementary schoolgirls and their mother who got sucked into a mudslide were pulled out, but they could not be revived.
People have also taken to social media to plead for help.
“Water came to the middle of the second floor,” a woman in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, wrote, posting a picture of her room half swamped by flooding.
“The kids could not climb up to the rooftop,” she said. “My body temperature has lowered. Rescue us quickly. Help us.”
The disaster is the deadliest rain-related crisis in Japan since 2014, when at least 74 people were killed in landslides caused by torrential downpours in Hiroshima Prefecture.