In flood-hit area of Okayama, residents shocked by scale of destruction

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Residents were digging out a mud-caked area of Okayama Prefecture on Tuesday, as floodwaters from last week’s record rainfall receded to reveal broad swaths of devastation from which it could take years to fully recover.

Mabicho, a district in the city of Kurashiki, was one of the hardest-hit areas in western Japan. With the sun now beating down on the destruction, road access to many parts of the area became possible Tuesday — a development expected to aid the delivery of water, food and emergency supplies.

Rescue workers — including Self-Defense Force personnel and local government authorities who were coordinating rescue and cleanup activities — arrived to find a very dusty landscape Tuesday afternoon, their vehicles making slow progress through roads caked with dried and drying mud in and around Mabicho.

Here and there, in the parking lots of local businesses and in surrounding fields, overturned vehicles that had been washed away in floodwaters rested upside down, waiting for tow trucks to take them away.

Neighbors were seen helping each other move muddy, broken and waterlogged furniture and household items to curb sides, in a calm and efficient manner.

An occasional breeze, carrying the smell of wet mud, stagnant water and rotting vegetation, nonetheless offered some respite from the blazing heat, as those who lost their homes recalled their ordeals.

“It was unbelievable,” said Teruo Sasai, whose house, along with nearly a dozen others in one part of Mabicho, had been flooded completely.

“The floodwaters were up over my house,probably reaching 4 or 5 meters, up past the roof all the way to the TV antenna. Thankfully, I was OK and nobody in this neighborhood was severely injured.”

“We’re still cleaning up. But I’d guess that, in order to recover, it’s going to take at least a year, and cost hundreds of millions of yen or more,” he added.

Along with residents, scores of local businesses in the Mabicho area have also flooded. Employees showed up at several to do what they could to help, despite grappling with damage to their own homes.

At one convenience store, nearly a dozen workers hauled out bags of plastic bottled drinks that were headed for a trash dump.

Employees at a home improvement center stood in front of the entrance, taking stock of the damage and attempting to estimate how long it would be before they could open their doors again.

Some were in no mood to talk to reporters, telling television crews that filming or taking photographs inside their damaged stores was not allowed. Others, however, were anxious to tell their stories.

“We lost all of our buses, trucks and taxis, but thankfully none of our employees,” said Keizo Fujiwara, who works at local transportation company. “Hopefully, we can be back in business in about six months.”

Getting water to residents remains a top priority.

At a local ward office, where workers were busy scraping mud off the entrance, water was being distributed to residents who had walked from their damaged homes — sometimes hundreds of meters away — in the heat and humidity, carrying plastic bottles.

One of most crucial tasks rescue workers initially faced was evacuating hospital patients after the main area hospital was flooded, requiring them to be moved elsewhere.

Mototaka Inaba, a doctor with the NPO Peace Winds Japan, said that there had been no evacuation plans prior to the flood.

“Ambulances and rescue vehicles could not initially get through as the roads were out,” he said.

“So we ended up evacuating people by boat and by helicopter. But Self-Defense Forces aren’t trained to deal with hospital patients,” he added. “So we assisted them in dealing with patients’ needs.”

The concern in Mabicho, as in neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture, remains fresh water and hygiene.

Inaba warned that heat exhaustion and heat stroke could become a problem as summer progresses and the temperature and humidity rise.

Inaba pointed out another lesson from the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, noting that “older people can suffer sickness if they don’t have proper oral care. So it’s very important that they have proper toothbrushes and toothpaste, and access to fresh water to brush their teeth.”